Monday, February 21, 2011

A Million Little Inaccuracies

image from Wikipedia
Perhaps the most writerly place I frequent is the "creative nonfiction discussion" list that is part of The Internet Writing Workshop. I learn there. But the IWW has other lists as well, and one recently posted a critical essay from the New York Times bemoaning the flood of memoirs.

I have been thinking about the "accuracy" in memoir thing for a bit, not that it is any value, but I'm beginning to believe that the "remembrances," whether accurate or not, are revealing of character/place/circumstance, and thus intellectually satisfying.

A friend posted a link regarding the writer Calvin Trillin's favorite memoirs in which he said, "But it’s an interesting form and I guess another thing about it is that people, because they have that stuff in their minds for a long time, they polish it over the years." On the other hand, one of his favorite memoirs was Omaha Blues by Joseph Lelyveld, a man who had been a reporter. About his work Trillin said ...
But what Lelyveld did was to go back and say, “I remember this but in fact that couldn’t have been, because that happened … chronologically that must be wrong.” So I thought it was a good approach to memoir, and markedly different from the way most people would write memoir. He wanted to say not just, “This is what I remember,” but, “This is actually true.”
I suppose I began to think about it when I was going through some old stuff of my father's and I found a permit for him to carry a .32 Colt automatic onto military installations. In a story about learning to shoot, learning a bit about the value of life, I'd written about him owning the weapon, but I had always wrongly assumed it was a Beretta or something akin.

I was perplexed. Certainty had been swallowed up by assumption. But does it make a difference in the essay? I'm not sure. I suppose editorial accuracy would say, "Unless you can prove it a Beretta, you should change it to "small automatic pistol."

I read memoir for the "memory" quality of it, for remembrance. I worry not so much about factual, objective honesty in every detail because in some measure memory -- however faulty, so long as not contrived for effect -- presents its own truth.

In memoir. I will settle for emotional honesty and factual belief.

1 comment:

Carter said...

Memory does funny things. I'd have been surprised if you'd written that your father carried a Beretta, because I'd barely heard of them until the 1980s, when they were issued to solders by the U.S. Army. I'd have automatically assumed that any pistol I heard of before about 1945 was a Colt. My Uncle Lee showed me his nickel-plated Colt revolver in about 1939-40. At least I think it was a Colt--it certainly was a nickel-plated revolver. :-)