Good Prose: Memoir

Is this what these stories I write here are? These little stories that I collect—at least in part—the way they make me notice my life and live it more fully, the way they help me make sense of this world? And if so, if this is what I am recording here—one five hundred word post at a time—then Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd will help me do it better.

This week in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction the authors are discussing the memoir.
The chapter starts with Kidder’s personal story about his early attempts to write his Vietnam War story. He tells how his emotional state at the time did not allow the story to be told in a way that worked—and how Todd helped him find the right technical solution. Not only was he able to get the story down successfully, but doing so helped exorcise some hard feelings associated with that time in his life.
It all boiled down to honesty—as much with himself as with the reader.

To place yourself on the page is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation. The act feels like what a lump of clay must feel like to the hands of a sculptor…Writers want to be engaging, and it is easy to try to purchase charm at the expense of honesty, but the ultimate charm lies in getting the face more right than pretty. (pp. 51)

This is the hard and fast rule of memoir-writing: truth. The authors readily admit that when it comes to memory, truth is not always simply defined. And haven’t we all felt that pull—even in a simple blog post? How, if things were just a shade lighter, the story would be so much better? Kidder and Todd cut no slack for such things.

…To make sense of your life or a portion of it is to tell a story, and story often stands at odds with the ferment in which you have lived. That’s one point of a story: to replace confusion with sense. The impulse of memoir is itself a fictive impulse…when the facts seem insufficient…maybe that’s the time to forsake memoir and write a novel….(pp.54, 58)

The authors cite Tim O’Brien as a clever example. O’Brien, who penned two stories based on his time of service in Vietnam, billed one as a memoir, the other a novel. It is the novel, The Things They Carried, that O’Brien will be remembered for and Kidder and Todd assert that this version seems to insist it is the true one. This is understood by the realization, they say, that only by heightening reality could O’Brien communicate the true dimensions of his own emotions.

I want you to feel what I felt, O’Brien writes. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. (pp. 59)

The authors recognize that memory is a slippery thing and they discuss effective ways—other than choosing to fictionalize—an author can own up to this. From a candid admission to interviews with others to narrowing the focus, any number of strategies can be effective. A good memoir, the authors say, is a record of learning.
Here are the authors’ basic rules of good behavior for the memoirist:
  • ·         Say difficult things. Including difficult facts.
  • ·         Be harder on yourself tan you are on others.
  • ·         Try to accept the fact that you are, in company with everyone else, in part a comic figure.
  • ·         Stick to the facts. (pp.54)
And while truth is the goal of the memoirist, Kidder and Todd recognize that the ultimate reward of memoir may be to produce a work in which the facts are preserved but the experience is transformed.
…If you can go back to the source and see your memories whole, you can crate truer versions of what you remember. You tell the stories as accurately and artfully as your abilities allow. If you succeed, you replace the fragments of memory with something that has its own shape and meaning, a separate thing that has value in itself. The past becomes an assertion that your life is of the present and the future.
Is that beautiful, or what? I am loving this book.
Second Draft:
Try writing your last blog post (if it is a true story) in a fictionalized version. How does it feel to manipulate truth this way? Which version do you like better?  Is there a way to “heighten reality” and still stay true to the facts? 

On Wednesdays, we’re discussing Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Next week we’ll discuss chapter three: Memoirs.

Other posts in this series: 


  1. says

    I haven’t read the book, but was struck by the quote from page 51: “To place yourself on the page is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation. The act feels like what a lump of clay must feel like to the hands of a sculptor…Writers want to be engaging, and it is easy to try to purchase charm at the expense of honesty, but the ultimate charm lies in getting the face more right than pretty.”

    More right than pretty. Wow. Convicted. Posting those words on my white board and on a Post-It on my Macbook.

  2. Lane Arnold says

    “the facts are preserved but the experience is transformed.”

    Hmm. I like the tension of this and your challenge to rewrite a true story into a fictionalized version…will give that a go and see how it goes.

    I’m enjoying the book. Good to have a weekly goal to read the chapter before you post…so on to chapter 4 now.

  3. says

    It was an excellent chapter, all the more so because I recently read “The Things They Carried,” which is STUNNING. There’s nothing like it. I liked their thoughts about applying the Golden Rule to memoir. Still not sure if it’s the genre for me, but it’s one of my favorite to read if they’re not out for revenge or something.

  4. Marybeth Thielke says

    Very interesting. I plan on writing a memoir one day, and will keep all of this tucked away. xo

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