THE INDEPENDENT MAGAZINE OF CONTEMPORARY FICTION rely on its solidity and validity. But does its elusive nature make it any less likely that it bears some truth? I had written and revised the pages of my book so many times that it had become my memory. I had shown the manuscript to family members, my doctors, and finally, my mother, and changed facts, places, even dialogue to match their recollections, even when they differed from mine. So was it lying to replace my recollections with theirs? Who’s to say that their memories were any more reliable then mine? Was I going to receive letters from people who appear in the book, claiming that I hadn’t gotten it “right” or told the “truth” about a recounted event? It was at this point that some of my pity for Frey dissolved. In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes, “The memoirist … must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable … In nonfiction the reader must believe that the narrator is speaking the truth.” In the wake of the nonfiction vs. fiction debate, Gornick herself has been called to defend her writing methods in her well-known memoir, Fierce Attachments. Her argument is that although the raw material of a life must be true, how the author shapes these experiences is what makes memoir literature, and not journalism or a statement of historical fact. The crucial element that moves memoir from a collection of lies to a work of nonfiction is the quality of the pact made with the reader. If I had written that a dragon had bitten off my left foot or I’d lost it during a dangerous skydive, that pact would be useless, based on lies alone. Can you draw wisdom from a life that was not your own? In this sense, Frey had broken his pact with the reader. How could he learn something that might be illuminating to the reader during a confrontation with the cops if it never happened? How could he be devastated by his role in a teenager’s death if he had played no part? he next day I went to the local Cheyenne bookstore and lis tened as two women discussed the previous day’s Oprah show. They, too, would have appreciated the truth, they said, and swore to never read anything else Frey wrote. Now, slipped into every copy of A Million Little Pieces is a statement from Frey: “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.” In February I was offered a job. This summer I’ve been teaching memoir, trying to help teach graduate students how to negotiate that tricky, blurry boundary between fact and fiction. And you can bet we discuss James Freyas a cautionary tale, a case study, and as a call for vigilance to “facts and pacts” in our writing. In the end, memoirists are not historians, but that does not eliminate all allegiance to fact. Most importantly, writers of memoir must uphold their end of the pact with the reader that they have done their utmost to ferret out as much information as possiblefrom family members, books, and other sourcesas they craft their narrative. So, how did James Frey change my life? He not only made me more conscious of the debate over what is memoir and what is nota notion that is with us for the long term and, I believe, for good reasonbut he made me more conscious of places in my own nonfiction writing where I bend the truth to fit the story without even thinking. Did I send out 100 resumes? Well, 85 to be exact, to be truthful.. Will my mother agree with this account of our conversation? No. In fact, after, reading this she said, “You watched the whole show with me. And I didn’t say ‘Hooey:” “Yes, you did,” I said. “No,” she said. “I’m right. Don’t exaggerate.” Former Observer intern Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, which will be published by Bloomsbury in .early 2007. She received her MFA in 2004 from the Michener, center at the University of Texas at Austin . AUGUST 11, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 39
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