I keep a little bookshelf of memoirs in my bedroom, so it’s often the shelf into which I dive when I have insomnia. Last night, I began with one book that I have read several times and suddenly realized the writing is shockingly bad. I had never mistaken it for high art, but — yowza. It was like checking the nutritional label on a favorite food that I believed to be semi-acceptable and finding out it was basically lard laced witih sodium.
So I moved on to Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, a book I adore. This one is wonderfully written, but it shares a quality with the first book — it recounts detailed conversations. How do people do this? Do they keep diaries?
Years ago, William Least Moon wrote a book I admired, Blue Highways. He said he took no notes for the conversations he recorded there, although he wrote them up from memory as soon as possible. He said he had been a journalist and it was his observation that journalists aren’t good listeners. (I don’t dispute this.) If we listen, he said, we can remember.
Yet Patchett, in writing about Lucy Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face, hints at something else:
“‘It’s amazing how you remember everything so clearly,’ a woman said . . . “All those conversations, details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?’
‘I didn’t remember it,’ Lucy said pointedly. ‘I wrote it. I’m a writer.’
This shocked the audience . . . but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event. That she chose to tell her own extraordinary story was of secondary importance. Her cancer and subsequent suffering had not made this book. She had made it. Her intellect and her ability were in every sense larger than the disease.”
I feel some unease with this paragraph. Should I assume that the same rules apply to Truth & Beauty? But then, I value Truth & Beauty not for the insights into the quotidian lives of two writers, but for its larger story — about friendship, about art, about the friendship between two artists.
Then again . . . is it clear to readers that memoirs might play by different rules than, say, narrative nonfiction, where dialogue is assumed to be as factual as possible? (I know this is a tricky assumption, but the best journalists I know really try to meet this standard.)
Or am I just jealous because I can’t recreate a conversation I had as recently as yesterday with any sense of accuracy? Am I not listening?
What does the word “memoir” mean to you? Does art negate fact in the memoir? Must it be merely emotionally true, not at variance with facts that are known or can be readily established?