Friday, February 29, 2008


When is something the truth and when is it false? When is a memoir a lie? We all have ideas on what has happened in our lives. We are all prone to exaggeration. Or are we?

I just read about another memoir in publishers marketplace HERE that has been shown to be untrue.
This is why I enjoy writing fiction. I admit it. I love to exaggerate.
"It must have been over 1000 degrees in that room!!!"
"We were stuck in traffic for HOURS!"
"I was in labor for DAYS!!!"
"That dress looks great on you."
"No I didn't take the last chocolate."
"Sure, I think you've lost weight."
I think you get what I mean. The things I haven't done?
Tell someone I've been in a country that I haven't.
Lied about where I went to school or whether I graduated.
Lied about my age.
Okay maybe not.
Lied about my wieght.
Okay maybe not.
But I haven't lied about anything IMPORTANT. Like if I read a book when I haven't...
Okay maybe that was a bad example.
So what do you think? What's the difference between enhancement and a lie?
Is exaggeration and embellishment a problem?
Inquiring minds want to know.

And while you're thinking...Here's a way cool photo of the book club I chatted with on Tuesday.
Mr. Taniguchi's ITE 314 class from the University of Hawaii. The discussion was lively and we had a grand time!

I think they all voted that three venti lattes was WAY TOO much for the author Patricia Wood...


bookfraud said...

it's not as much exaggeration and embellishment as outright lies. james frey just made stuff up and called it truth. ditto for dave "a child called it" pelzer. or even jt leroy, who created a fake autobiography around "her" self.

they aren't talented enough to write fiction that would pass the sniff test, so they take their tales and pass 'em off as reality. more dramatic that way. more sales that way. lots more sales that way.

ORION said...

You are absolutely right bookfraud--there's a huge difference and I'm bemused why writers would be tempted to do this. I know there is more marketing potential to a juicy memoir.
My point is we all prevaricate to some extent but most of us know where to draw the line.
There was a post on AW a while back about whether it was OK to use an ethnic pen name when querying a book about the middle east...and I just had to shake my head.
With fiction you can be anyone.
With memoir yanno -- ya gotta be yourself...

Ric said...

memoirs are tricky business. I used to write a column about growing up on the farm. I pulled a bunch together and sent them to my older brother in Tacoma - I attached a note that said, "This is the way I remember, as I recall."
He said it was a good thing I pointed that out as his memory of the same events was completely different.

The embellishments come from fiction writing - action on the first page, lots of bodies, 3 days in jail turning into 6 months, tylenol becoming crystal meth. Gotta have that action in there.

Maybe you can get away saying you were so messed up that's the way you remember....

Kim Stagliano said...

I like to say, "I'm a writer. I make stuff up." It is such fun, after all!

But to write something, portray it as true and then get caught. Seems to be either more of that today as people think cheating is OK, or the Internet allows people to investigate claims more fully after the fact. But, isn't that the editor's job??

Roberta said...

Great post! I publish both fiction and nonfiction and certainly understand the difference.

There's a vast difference and it should be respected. It worries me when the lines between fact and fiction blur. I suppose it began with the concept of "creative nonfiction" and moved along from there.

Fibs? Lies? Whatever the term, I don't see it as a good trend ...

Michelle O'Neil said...

I hate hearing about this kind of thing.

Each person does have their own unique take on past events, but outright lies and exaggerations by a few make the whole genre seem untrustworthy.

Then again, I know memoir writers who, per their publishers, have had to change so much to protect against lawsuits, that their stories start to feel untrue to them!

I love memoir, but if it turns into fiction, I'd appreciate it being called fiction.

Carleen Brice said...

Ha! My good friend and beta reader always questions the exaggerations in my book...she doesn't get me in that way. Good to know I'm not alone!

Kimber An said...

What about Maternal Amnesia? That's not lying, is it? I'm pretty strict about honesty, but I forget things sometimes, yanno. Dealing with a toddler having a middle-of-the-night wardrobe malfunction on the potty can do that to you.

Colorado Writer said...

I really was in labor for days with baby #3.

I've thought about memoir a lot. But, I think I've blocked out several years, so I'd have to embellish and that's where the trouble begins.

It's easier to make things up than tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

ORION said...

amnesia...yeah...I have winter amnesia. I have totally forgotten what cold weather is like.

Bookfool said...

I agree with bookfraud -- there's a big difference between filling in the memory gaps with a little creative license or slight alteration (in order to make an anecdote more readable, for example) than creating an entirely fictional tale and marketing it as reality.

I'm currently reading a book in which the author has a disclaimer saying she freely admits that she's altered things a bit, that her memory isn't perfect, and that two people quizzed about the same event will almost always remember such an event in completely different ways. But, she goes on to say the vast majority is fact and she's merely filled in or fluffed up to make the stories good. I think she's got the right idea.

Lisa R said...

Outright lies are not okay but we all embellish from time to time...however, in this day and age we should all be careful because, yanno, it's just too easy to prove something isn't true. Liar beware.

ChristineEldin said...

James Frey really disillusioned me for a while. I thought that was awful, particularly since teh book was about coming out of addiction. How can he look at himself in the mirror? And since this is sortof focusing on memoirs, I will say that I don't trust these anymore.
There is plenty of fiction (genre and literary!!) to keep me going!

(Unless it's a Johnny Depp memoir.)

Anonymous said...

I find myself doing it sometimes without even meaning to. It's usually when I'm telling a story, and I get carried away. But it's always something minor. You see, almost anything is worth it for a good story: difficult times, frustrations, exaggeration. I do try not to do it, though.

When we were little, my brother and I used to tell each other we were twins or make up other harmless little lies just to see what people would believe. And since the lies were so innocuous, there wasn't any reason for people *not* to believe them.

Wow. This makes me sound like a total liar, and I swear I'm not. But then, you won't believe that now, will you? ;-)

Holly Kennedy said...

This is why I love writing fiction, because I can exaggerate and it's 100% fine.

Did you hear about Kathleen Turner's recent memoir? She wrote about working with Nicholas Cage on a movie years ago and said that he'd been arrested twice for drinking and had once stolen someone's dog!

Apparently he's suing but she's standing firm, saying, "Well, that's how I remember it." Given that she also admits to a drinking problem, I guess she has an excuse to hide behind. Wonder how it'll all evolve in a courtroom!

Heidi the Hick said...

The beauty of writing fiction is that I can truthfully say, "I made it all up!!!"

But I do think readers want to know that the writer knows what she's talking about. You have to trust the writer to suspend your disbelief and get into the story. If a writer lies about her own self and gets caught, it kind of dirties the fiction. That's my opinion. At this point in time. Maybe I'll get better at lying in the future and change my mind... maybe not.

Memoir has to be truth and yes, truth is subjective to memory. If a memoirist says she exaggerated to make a good story I'm even okay with that. Honestly. Believability.

I agree with the previous comment...if Johnny Depp wrote a memoir I'd read it!!! He's actually quite a good writer and lives an interesting life!

Maya said...

Thank you so much for coming to our class. You are an amazing speaker and mentor! :)

John Elder Robison said...

One thought I have is this: You can write in a memoir the things you'd tell people at a party.

For example, I cannot imagine trying to convice someone that I roamed Europe with wild wolves as a child. Who would relate such a tale at a party? Not me.

There is nothing in my book that I have trouble with if someone says, "Did you really do that?" or "What happened then?"

So that's one standard.

The other is about facts that will not tend to be questioned in casual conversation but which will make you look bad, if you lie about them.

For example, any of us could say, "I was first in my class at Duke University," and on the face of it, no one would have reason to challenge us.

But if it subsequently was revealed that the only college we attended was Podunk Community College, we'd look very bad.

What do we do about that? Publishers are not going to fact check every line of every non fiction book.

We all know there are people who pose as bank representatives to steal money. There are people who tell us a complete pile of junk is a wonderful car. There are people who lie to all of us for all manner of reasons. Aren't some of the people who make up stories about salvation in prison and sell them as non fiction the same?

If so, perhaps the real issue is that this has always happened but the Internet now spreads the word and something that formerly made individual people shake their head is now discussed by thousands.

Demon Hunter said...

I love fiction. If someone wants to write a memior, have something truthful and interesting to write about, if not, stick to fiction.

ORION said...

Aloha Maya!
I had a great time in your class too!
John you are right about the internet- it also makes it easier to fact check re: "Smoking Gun."
Holly- I didn't know about Kathleen Turner's memoir- Is EVERYBODY a former alcoholic???
I'm counting the days until I experience winter!- I leave for Seattle on Friday and go to Calgary on Sunday. If you all hear a seismic disturbance in Canada on Sunday afternoon and the rest of that week it will be Holly and I reuniting and gabbing non-stop...

Nichola said...

A quick quote from Barbara Taylor Bradford, then I'll go back to read everyone else's comments on this...She once said, "A novel is a monumental lie that must have the absolute ring of truth."

I think it's great that we all tell lies and get away with it! I don't see the point in labelling a book a memoir, unless some think it wouldn't sell as much is classified as 'fiction'.

Maybe I should write my own life story. I wouldn't even have to exaggerate what I've been through. An illegitimate Scot, half-Italian, raised a Catholic, with an Irish surname? No wonder I'm bloody confused...

Sustenance Scout said...

Terrific photo and a lovely lei, Pat! Also love Nichola's comment; good fiction always rings so true for me. A fantastic memoir that's absolutely worth reading, btw, is Denverite Kim Reid's recounting of life as a daughter of one of the investigators (her mom) in the Atlanta PD during the 1970s terrifying disappearances and murders of numerous black boys and young men. NO PLACE SAFE is an amazing coming-of-age story; Kim's the real deal. K.

Kim Stagliano said...

Sustenance Scout - I met Kim Reid last year at BEA and was fortunate to get a copy of "No Safe Place." I practically missed my train stop coming home from the show - I was so engrossed in her story. It was one of those rare books where I read sooooo sloooooowly because I just didn't want to get to the last page. I'm ready to read her grocery list - anything she publishes next!

Sustenance Scout said...

I know what you mean, Kim! It's a tough one to put down. Hugs to you from Denver, btw. K.

Drewpy Drew said...

I found your blog over at Manic Mom's and had to drop by to say 'hey'.


I lived on a 40 foot sloop for about a year when I was 12. It was awesome. Our cat would take refuge in the sink in the head every time we went sailing.

Reading your post about living aboard took me back 30 years. I am a little jealous.

Peace out.

ORION said...

And not there's ANOTHER one????

A privileged young woman posed as a half indian foster child drug dealer????

These Faux Memoirs are getting ridiculous...

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Pat,

I've been seeing this all over the blog-o-sphere today... I think Jonathon Lyons mentioned that her, the half-indian foster child, who was really upper middle class and white one... anyway, her editor was the same editor that bought Frey's book, or maybe it was his second book...

I don't know what to say about this one, I think it's blatant fraud - there's no way you can call that memoir and feel justified, but her response is that she felt she was giving a voice to the voiceless... personally, I think the voiceless should be more than indignant that this little twit is pompous enough to think they can't speak for themselves... oh, but then the voiceless might get the six figure advance, so that wouldn't work...

In Frey's case, I wondered what exactly happened there - he embellished large things, yes, but the meat of his story was accurate... and he tried to publish it as fiction first. So I did wonder what exactly was the process, did the agent or editor suggest he make it memoir because it was so close to his life experience? Did he do it all himself because it was an easier way to reach publication? Was it pressure or greed, or stone stupidity?

I couldn't write memoir because, one - I'm not all that interesting and two - I couldn't possibly break my life into a solid story with an arc and remember all the details... I'd have to fill in spaces if I even wanted to try... and I don't often remember the really bad parts and how can you have a compelling read without those?

Kanani said...

There's another one that surfaced this week. Margaret B. Jones wrote a doozy about life in the hood.

I'll comment on that on my soon as I help my cat Panda pen his memoir, "My Life As King."

Kanani said...

From what I can recall, in the case of James Frey, he submitted it as fiction. The publisher, agent, editor and publicist decided it would be more compelling if it were reworked to be a memoir. Frey went along with this.

Oprah got pissed.
Double dorks.
You don't piss off Oprah.
Dork, dork, dork.
You don't try this without learning from all of the above.

Kanani said...

Ex Pat Jane has the best perspective on this whole incident regarding Margaret B. Jones.