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25: May 26, 2009


Laying Down the Law



The Bonds and Clemens of Major League Memoir-Writing:
Supplementing their natural gifts with Performance Enhancing Deceptions

Slate’s Jack Shafer, that latter-day Diogenes, is at it again, this time taking Larry King to task for making stuff up in his new memoir (and elsewhere). It turns out, for example, that Larry has for decades been dishing out the saga of the uproarious road trip he took as a teenager with neighborhood buddy Sandy Koufax—a tale which came as big news to Sandy when word got back to him.

As one who idolized Sandy in childhood, I rather wished I possessed the power to issue fatwahs. Miffed as I was, I was mildly surprised that Shafer would go after so overripe a target given his track record. Even I managed to expunge a gratuitous jab at Larry’s intellect that I had embedded in the introduction of Summer of Marv. (I substituted Wolf Blitzer’s name in the final galley. Wolf had gradually worn out his welcome during the recent election cycle—and here, too, I might have fallen under the sway of the redoubtable Shafer to some extent.)

Anyway, the sight of a Shafer exposé on a transparently lying memoirist sent me into a Proustian reverie for those halcyon days of, well, around last year at this time, when I was formulating my own four-part series on memoirists who deliberately pass made-up malarkey off as fact. The objects of my attacks, the faithful reader will recall (and that’s not a generic singular, by the way: I have exactly one faithful reader) were James Frey, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and Josh Muggins. For it was in my Sedaris diatribe that I first cited a Shafer piece, specifically the one in which he backs up Sedaris’s Ur-critic, Alex Heard of The New Republic.

Here’s a brief recap of my earlier whinings.

What My Fellow Memoirists Did

All three writers have published ostensibly nonfiction memoirs chockfull of fiction. Frey’s excesses (a jail term he never served, a fatal train accident that he claims to have caused) are well known, but apart from the efforts of a few meddling journalists little light has been cast on the sins of Sedaris (a nonexistent summer-long volunteer position; the wholesale insertion of fictional personages into ostensibly true stories) or Burroughs (so ruthlessly trashing the family that helped raise him that he drove them to therapy—and a lawsuit).

Why I Can’t Stop Whining About It

I’m giving poor Frey a pass from here on out: the man has enough on his plate now that Oprah has again picked up his scent. But here’s the short list of my grievances.

a. Sedaris continues to thrive and continues to shrug off what he terms “exaggerations” as no big deal.

b. Burroughs continues to thrive after effectively punting his lawsuit and thereby placing all memoirists in jeopardy. (Bonus points for his claims of “victory” on behalf of all us less powerful memoirists.)

c. They and others are so tarnishing the very concept of the memoir that an increasingly cynical reading public will shy away from all such books not authored by porn stars.

d. All right, I’m jealous of their success.

Why I Perhaps Ought to Stop Whining About It

Yes, I’ve been known to manipulate the truth as well, as the taxonomy of my crimes published here makes clear. Still, I would argue that there’s a line to be drawn between me and my more notorious colleagues, and that if someone is going to set about constructing a Mount Rushmore of Crooked Memoirists, he’ll want someone better qualified than me to fill the Teddy Roosevelt slot.

In the year that’s passed since my opening salvos on this topic I’ve brought out my second book and given the whole “truthiness” issue a lot of what passes for serious thought around here. I’m trying to construct some sort of rulebook for my own ongoing work and for anyone else gullible enough to follow my lead. This is a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

1. Defining Memoir

I suppose most people regard the memoir as a soft-cover, minor-league sidekick of the autobiography. At least one source distinguishes between the two forms in terms of scope: the memoir shines a light on a single episode or period of the author’s life according to this school of thought, whereas the autobiography covers the whole shebang.

To me the distinction is more a matter of gravitas. The autobiography has always had a more scholarly veneer to it than the memoir does. The word memoir, descending to us as it does from the Old French word for memory, may represent nothing more than a compilation of what the writer remembers. Of course it excludes anything the author knows to be untrue—prison terms never served, Hall of Fame pitchers never hung with, etc.--but does not require documentation. All you have to do is be true to your own memory.

To summarize, then:

Memoir: What you honestly remember as having happened

Autobiography: What you can prove happened

My books, I feel confident averring, pass the test as memoirs, though not as autobiographies, while Sedaris and Burroughs have to find themselves a new label.

Which brings us to…

2. Defining Nonfiction

No matter how one gets a book into print, there comes a time when an author has to classify his work as Fiction or Nonfiction. It has often occurred to me that this binary system is more rigid than it ought to be but—as a sweaty realtor once said to me half a dozen times in the process of showing a truly hideous Honolulu condominium—it is what it is.

I’ve tried, Lord knows I have, to picture the mental gymnastics that people like Sedaris and Burroughs put themselves through when they sign off on having their books released as Nonfiction. Well, really, if you tote up every little statement, I suppose slightly more than half of the items in the book are true, so—you know—on balance… In the end, though, I’m afraid it comes down to a cynical business decision. Their chronicles of childhood horrors and highjinks lose much of their capacity to amuse or shock—to say nothing of their marketability—when rebranded as fables.

At the risk of sounding impossibly noble, I think the standard of Nonfiction has to be kept somewhat higher—like, oh, let’s say, Nonfiction comprises only that which is verifiably true. “Nonfiction,” in short, should be an inviolable Fortress of Rectitude.

Since so much of my books consist of guesswork, the filling in of blanks, etc., I have no recourse but to skulk across the drawbridge and out into the Wilderness of Fiction while Sedaris and Burroughs continue to sip their Cosmos and warm their feet by the fortress fireplace.

3. Drawing the Line

All right, then: Just what can and can’t we put into a memoir?

Let’s take Summer of Marv as a test case. Its 153 pages are packed with anecdotes from my days at Mankato in 1975—that’s thirty years before I decided to start on a book about those experiences. The sole source I used was my journal from that year, a dozen or so pages of single-spaced typing. I also got input from two friends who knew me at the time and had shared some of the experiences described in the book. Otherwise, I made only cursory attempts at research or fact checking.

Now, if one were to go through Summer of Marv and highlight only those statements in the book that are documentable—rather in the manner that some people have attempted to boil away all the miracles from the Gospels to distill out the essential teachings of Jesus—one would have a pamphlet of approximately ten pages.

Suppose one were then to strap me to a makeshift plywood table and waterboard me until I revealed exactly which parts of the book are, albeit undocumented, at least based on what I consider to be firm and unquestionably accurate memories. Then our booklet would expand to a total of, oh, around forty pages.

That’s right—over two-thirds of my memoir consists of Stuff That Even I’m Not Sure Is Right. Let’s go through a couple of segments to show you how it works.

Example 1: The Dental Hygiene Clinic

On pages 48 to 49, I describe a place on campus where students could go to get their teeth cleaned by adorable, cleavage-baring dental hygienists-in-training.

I was indeed a frequent visitor to this institution. However, I have no idea whether or not it was called a “clinic,” nor do I know exactly what the women there were majoring in. I’m pretty sure the operation was, as noted, located in the basement of Morris Hall, and have quite reliable memories of the dark, forbidding stairway one took to get there. But were the women’s uniforms mint green? Did they wear pantsuits in 1975, or would they still have been wearing skirts then? Indeed, did the hygienists even have a set uniform? Was the lighting in the room really as eerie as I think it was? Honestly, I’m reaching on all these details.

Example 2: The Mother of All Semen Stains

In one of the book’s quite literally climactic scenes (pages 144 to 147), I tell the story of how my friend Spook Blunt carefully preserved evidence of a sexual encounter in his dorm room so that I might “accidentally” discover it during my subsequent visit.

I constructed the scene largely around dialogue, even though not a single word of the original conversation had been preserved in my journal. I essentially picked up a few strands of deeply embedded memory—how Spook induced me to notice the semen stain, how incensed he became when I doubted his story of the stain's provenance, my amazement at the thing’s immensity—and from these few strands somehow spun a coherent retelling of the incident that, to me at least, sounds just about right.

Did Spook smoke Marlboros? Did we, on that occasion, smoke the notorious brand of marijuana known as RoeWeed? And just what did the semen stain actually look like? Did my visit actually take place a full week after the alleged creation of the stain? All of this is, well, speculation.

So, where do I come off riding in on my high horse? How can I possibly claim moral superiority to Sedaris and Burroughs? Well, there’s this: I don’t deliberately put into my stories incidents that I know AREN’T true and try to pass them off as fact. That is, I won’t tell you that such-and-such happened if I’m absolutely sure that it did NOT happen.

I realize that we’re getting into rather fine shadings here, but bear with me. Here are the criteria I ended up using when deciding whether to include or not include material in Summer of Marv.

1. Do I honestly have a memory of something like this (e.g., the hygiene clinic visits) having happened? Can I be sure that I’m not just talking myself into believing it a la Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds with their inadvertent steroid use? (If “Yes,” proceed to 2.)

2. Given what I know about the personalities, world views, speech patterns, etc., of the people involved (e.g. Spook Blunt and my younger self), is it reasonable to assume that people might have said the things I have them saying, done the things I have them doing, smoked the things I have them smoking, worn the things I have them wearing, etc? (If “Yes,” proceed to 3.)

3. Take one last look. Am I perhaps tweaking things just a little to make events seem funnier than they really were, or to make myself look less pathetic than I really was/am? Is any of the funny stuff totally devoid of any basis in memory? (If “No,” leave it in. If "Yes, but yo, this bit is really choice, bro! Can't we just this once-" then, well, I guess-- No, let me shun that! That way madness lies!)

4. Well done, young Skywalker! Now, take a break and treat yourself to some porn.

The above is the closest thing to an actual Code of Ethics that I’ve ever composed for myself. It’s rough and unwieldy: again, consider it a work in progress.

Damned curious stuff, these “ethics.” Any of you folks ever try them? They go well with a crisp Chardonnay.