Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The I in Memoir

One of the good things about not working on my book is that I've been able to catch up on my reading. My current object of attention is Island, Tasmania's excellent literary journal. I always find its nonfiction strong and this issue (115), which came out in the summer and which has sat on my bedside table since then, is no exception. I'm especially enjoying the essays on memoir and autobiograpy writing. I suppose because this is what is on my mind at the moment.

Robert Dessaix in conversation with Danielle Wood says:
Anyone who talks to you - especially husbands and relatives - knows that you're a writer. They're going to pop up in your books and there you go. If feelings get dented from time to time, you're not responsible. Or only a bit. So long as you don't write out of malice, obviously. I admit there's a grey area - parents, people you knew before you began to write - but you're immortalising them, after all, and that should be worth something.
Now that my book is nearing publication (although not fast enough for my liking), I'm beginning to get nervous about the reactions of people who appear in it. Will my father find my depiction of my mother's behaviour too difficult to bear? Will the aunt with whom my mother feuded take offence at my account of their differences? Will my brothers feel I have misrepresented their roles?

I have done my best to be as honest as I can, but as Elisabeth Hanscome writes in another article in the same issue of Island:
The truth, the real, is fluid not static, though once written it can become static, and in this sense it can distort what really happened.
Hanscome also quotes Paul John Eakin, who has written extensively on memoir and autobiography:
The 'I' of the first person...papers over the fact that we are no longer who we were. Each day we wake up a different person. We constantly remodel the past to accommodate the needs of the person we become in the present.
The back story may well be the true story but its telling almost always involves a degree of interpretation and therefore to some extent the fictional uses of imagination.
Well, notwithstanding the difficulties of honesty and memory and of the writing process itself, I hope I have managed to tell a story that illuminates something true and real and that will resonate for the reader.

1 comment:

  1. I think people who get upset about the picture in their head of themselves not matching the picture on the page don't understand the idea of self versioning and interpretation.

    We all do it when we retell stories. As Eakin says, we all remodel the past to accommodate the needs of the person we become in the present. But because writers do it in print, they have to be careful about it and also know that ultimately they have to be happy with their version, because really, whose story is it?