Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Memoir and Truthiness

This summer, I've been taking a flash memoir writing class online, so as I am writing and reading about writing memoir, I become more aware of all the memoirs I encounter in my reading.

As much as I've enjoyed Sherman Alexie's writing, I'd never read all the way through The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven until this summer.  I've taught one of the stories "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" in English 113.  When I completed my National Boards certification back in 1999, a suggested reading, viewing, and listening list was provided, and Smoke Signals, the movie based in part on this book.

I guess I'm glad I waited because I ended up with the 25th anniversary edition of the book, with an introductory interview of the author by Jess Walters, author of Beautiful Ruins and The Financial Lives of Poets, both books I enjoyed immensely.  I learned that Walters grew up close to the reservation where Alexie lived, and the two have known each other for years. Alexie also adds his own introduction in which he addresses the idea of memoir.

When Alexie spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University this spring, he referred to one event in his sort-of-memoir, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  In the real event, he became angry when he realized how old his new math book was (It had his mother's name in it.) and threw it at the chalkboard.

"In the book," he told the audience, I hit my teacher with it, which was much more satisfying."

Memoir and autobiography don't even claim to be the same thing, but authors have choices to make about what to include, what to omit, when to take license to make a story complete--or interesting--without misleading.  Memoirists--unless living their entire lives on a deserted island--must also consider the reactions and responses of other people in their lives.  Even without intentionally distorting the truth, one writer's account will vary from someone else's, even though both may have been present and paying attention.  Jane Hertenstein, the author of Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir, cited a story I had heard recently about a professor at Emory who asked college sophomores to write down the details of the Space Shuttle explosion right after it occurred.  Two years later, when he asked the same students to provide details on this incident, he found their accounts varied greatly from their early narratives.

This only confirms what most of us know if we pay attention:  our memories operate through a filter. While we probably can't recall every detail--and especially every conversation--the challenge is to tell our own stories in a way that attempts to make sense out of the biggest details of our lives.  Alexie never pretends to provide a flawless factual account, but he certainly writes the truth.

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