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Marginal Notes

Literal and Narrative Truth

The book I’m most proud of having worked on is the memoir of a holocaust survivor – Mark it With a Stone by Joseph Horn. As you might imagine, he had a gripping, important story to tell. But when we met, he was a businessman and lacked the narrative skills he needed in order to tell his story effectively. He also warned me before we began that, because the events he was writing about were so traumatic, he might find it hard to tolerate criticism.

But he was motivated. Horn had once watched a fellow inmate in a work camp scream, “No, I must live, I must tell!” just before he was executed. Horn lived. And he told. I was able to coach him gently through revisions that made his narrative more effective, the book published, and a copy is now in the library of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

His story raises an interesting question, though – what does it mean for a memoir to be accurate? One of the largest issues we dealt with was the matter of dialogue. He wanted to be absolutely scrupulous, telling stories precisely as they happened. But in his original draft, his characters only spoke when he could remember what they said word-for-word. Since the manuscript was written years after the fact, this meant he used very little dialogue – mostly bursts of highly memorable lines like, “I must live, I must tell!” Nearly all the rest of his conversations were narrative summary, and many of his scenes felt flat and distant as a result. He was telling the story to readers rather than letting them experience it.

I agreed with his absolute scruple about accuracy, but argued that he needed to focus on a different kind of accuracy – narrative accuracy rather than literal accuracy. He needed to create dialogue that would make his readers feel the way he felt at the time. This meant literally putting words in his characters’ mouths, even if those words conveyed the gist of a dialogue that actually happened. But since the point of his narrative was to allow his readers to experience what he had experienced, the scenes with recreated dialogue were more accurate than the flat, emotionless scenes.

Many memoirists have taken this technique a step further and created composite characters. For instance, in Dreams of my Father, President Obama’s “New York girlfriend” was actually an amalgam of several girlfriends he’d had in New York and Chicago. I’d argue that combining several minor characters into a single character who represents the type is another form of narrative accuracy. If you had, for instance, several high school teachers who inspired you in similar ways, you could take the time to create each of them as a minor character. But all these excess characters would do more than simply slow your narrative down. By spending time on each teacher, you would give your readers the impression that your high school experiences meant more to you than they actually did. The writing is strictly accurate, but the story as a whole is thrown off.

Of course, if you do create a composite character, be careful not to give them the name of a real person, especially if he or she is still alive. You don’t want to have someone reading that they’ve done or said things they never did. It’s also a good idea to mention in a foreword or afterword that you have combined some characters, just so readers won’t feel misled. Obama’s New York girlfriend never got a name, and he mentioned his use of composites in an author’s note.

Then there’s the practice that got James Frey in such trouble. If you happened to miss this particular controversy, Frey wrote in his memoir of addiction (A Million Little Pieces) that he had spent 87 days in jail after a drug-fueled fight with the police. As was revealed later, records showed that Frey had spent only five hours in the police station before he posted bond and was described by the arresting officer as polite and cooperative.

So where’s the line that Frey crossed? What’s the difference between creating dialogue that characters never actually spoke, creating characters who didn’t actually exist, and creating events that didn’t actually happen? The first two cases make the story more emotionally true. They help the memoirist convey events without giving readers a false impression of what his or her life had been like. What Frey did simply made his story more exciting than his life had actually been.

Memoirs are not court testimony. If you’re writing a memoir, no matter how honest you may be, you have to work within the limitations of the storytelling craft. The deeper priorities of telling a story often require you to make up dialogue, characters, or minor details. This is not lying, even though you’re not telling what actually happened. The truth you want is the truth you lived.