This is as good a place as any to begin my blog. I’m writing a memoir that involves a lot of uncertainty—what happened, who did it, when, and for God’s sake, why? How does a writer cope with this uncertainty in writing? I guess some people cope by making up the details. But I need to be scrupulously clear about what I don’t know—for me it’s part of truth-telling. I don’t know when certain events happened, exactly, but I do know it was in a particular house, so I must have been three or four. I don’t have videographic memories, but I do have some audio. And so on.
But fact and truth—are they the same? No. I mean, in the James Frey controversy I come down squarely in favor of factual exactness. There is no excuse for claiming he spent months in jail when he didn’t—that’s not a slip, it’s a lie. But as Judith Barrington said in her book Writing the Memoir, you can’t just record conversations verbatim (even if you could do it accurately) and have it come out readable. Any writing involves condensation, arrangement, and editing—just as magazine editors work to shape those “casual” interviews with celebrities. Writing involves abstraction in the same sense that paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe abstract the essence of landscapes. (More on this later.)
So I’m transcribing my journals of therapy sessions five years ago and in the journals I’m saying the same stuff over and over, the insights gaining ground slowly, the feelings shifting inch by inch. I can’t just spew that all out into a memoir—no one would ever read it, nor should they have to. So I take the pages of transcript and, with feelings of mixed dread and delight, I snip, snap, and shuffle to try to convey the true feelings and the “truth” of how it happened. That’s why the process of writing memoir is exciting—the abstraction from the facts requires vision and art. But in service of truth, not self-aggrandizement.
Writing and poetry