Truth, Fact, and Memoir

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.


Anonymous said...

This makes good sense to me and is awfully well put, especially the last paragraph. But are journal records of therapy sessions what you remember and put down afterward? ( I can't recall ever doing that or thinking of doing it.)

missmudpie said...

I have written a lot over the years about what happened to me over the years. You are so right when you write about condensing and rearranging your journals. That is exactly how I have come to see the process of finding the truth about what happened to me. When I first started to write in my journal about my abuse, it was heady. Then there was a sudden disintegration of my defenses and my writing changed. The same events were there but I had shifted. I could now write and live with much more confidence than ever before.

Jane Rowan said...

Dear anonymous,
Thanks, and yes, I have a practice of sitting down immediately after therapy and recording as many details and words as I remember. It helps me in my process.

Dear Sunny,
Writing, as you said, is a powerful way of moving things on.

Me said...

I have a very bizzare clearity to my memories of abuse and I certainly can recall them in a flashback within seconds. Sometimes I view my flashbacks as if I'm a third person, watching the action and also hearing the sounds, voices, speech.

When everyday is the same as the day before and the impact of trauma to the brain and body is always on guard, I think it is really hard to just forget it all. I remember the names I was called, the way I was spoken too, the gross and ugliness in how I was treated in the verbal sense.

While some may find it difficult to construct his or her stories in a fine string of events, I remember my stories just as the flashbacks portray.

Jane Rowan said...

Dear Me,
I'm sorry you have to endure the clarity and specificity of those memories. Many of us, for better or worse, have fragments only. There are biological reasons why the brain fragments traumatic events.

Scientists don't yet understand why some people's traumatic memories are entire while others are in pieces. Some factors have to to with age of the victim, closeness of perpetrator (see my later post on "Why are memories so hidden?"), and other circumstances.

I agree that it's hard to "just forget it all," as survivors are often urged to do. The body remembers and remains on alert.