Saturday’s MWF program was all about non-fiction for me. First I went to the session Memoir: Fact or Fiction?, followed by one called Fact, Fiction, Truth. Both sessions were concerned with the line between fact and fiction in memoir and creative non-fiction. The day finished with the launch of the Australian-themed issue #46 of Creative Nonfiction magazine.
In Memoir: Fact or Fiction, panelists discussed their motivations for writing memoir. Sydney Smith’s memoirs help her “put … life in perspective”, with the process of writing uncovering deeper feelings that she wasn’t even aware she had. Barry Dickins expressed an enviable kind of euphoria that he gets from writing his story – “It’s too delicious not to write,” he said. All panelists agreed that therapy precedes writing, with memoir successfully happening after the cathartic process, not as an instrument of it.
Both the Memoir: Fact or Fiction panel and Fact, Fiction, Truth discussed the unreliability of memory. Claire Bidwell Smith recalled being told that her memories differed from those around her, while Sydney Smith talked about “the luminous quality that memory bestows.” I love that idea – and I’m sure you know what Smith meant. That strange glowing realm where everything in the past exists in a memory-haze.
The disjuncture between memory and reality was a concern for both panels. In Fact, Fiction, Truth, Robin Hemley talked about an exercise he does with creative writing students, where he gets them to close their eyes and describe the room to him. Often, he said, students would miss things that were very obvious, or recall things that were never there. One student swore there was a flag-pole and flag in the room, when there was no such thing present. Research is a proposed way around this unreliability of memory – go back and check facts from your life, corroborate your story with other people. In the Memoir session, however, Claire Bidwell Smith rejected this method, prioritizing the authenticity of her own lived experience and rememberances. “I didn’t want the ‘facts’,” she said, “I only wanted memory.”
This idea of ‘authenticity’ was raised in Fact, Fiction, Truth also. Kate Holden used this notion of ‘authenticity’ when talking about the fact that memoirs can’t really be fact-checked. While characters and situations might be conflated, what really matters is that the story is authentic. Because memoir is a construction, and because it focuses on an individual’s experience, the space between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ is inherently blurry. As long as the story does itself justice, as long as it’s “the emotional truth”, as long as it’s authentic - that’s what a memoirist owes to their readers.
This line between fact and fiction is something that really interests me. It’s frustrating that the only answer to it all seems to be, “It’s complex”. Yeah, it is complex. What’s most exciting is writing that’s willing to splash around in the grey area. Hopefully readers can suspend their expectations about “The Truth” for long enough to really enjoy that kind of writing.