The Rumpus Talks Truth in Memoir

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  01.27.12 | 3:17 PM ET

This is a favorite, much-kicked-around topic of mine, as relevant to travel writers as to more stationary memoirists. Earlier this week the folks at The Rumpus added a fresh contribution to the debate.

Messing With Memoir is an essay about the author’s efforts to revise her out-of-print memoir, years after she’d written it, and the ethical issues she grappled with in doing so. Here’s a taste:

I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.

Even more important, a memoir is a reflection of who you are at the time of writing. But now I would be peering backwards at myself from a new vantage point. Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?

Touching on the same theme in one of his “Daily Rumpus” emails a few days back, editor Stephen Elliott wrote about “the only true rule of memoir”:

You cannot knowingly tell a lie. In other words, you can be wrong, you can write things you consider to be true that other people consider to be untrue. In fact, it’s impossible to do otherwise. Most truth is not factual; most truth is subjective. But to state a something as fact when you know it is not, ie. I spent this much time in jail, is to break the cardinal rule.

I think that gets it about right. For more, check out Tom Bissell’s essay on truth and travel literature, Truth in Oxiana.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

5 Comments for The Rumpus Talks Truth in Memoir

Jerry Waxler 01.30.12 | 9:05 AM ET

Yay, a sane, calm article about the maddening topic of truth in memoirs. Thanks for keeping it simple.

Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

kiev 02.22.12 | 5:43 AM ET

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Alexandra Wright 03.16.12 | 3:15 AM ET

This makes me wonder if the people who write on travel blogs are writing the truth, or telling white lies. Some of them are sponsored to go to places, and to stay in certain hotels. Those lucky few who are sponsored to go on holiday in the UK are sort of expected to blog the more positive memories about places they visit. By withholding their negative experiences, are they telling a lie, or withholding the truth?
Alexandra - holidaysintheuk

Jerry Waxler 03.16.12 | 6:01 AM ET

In my opinion, Alexandra, this is a question of literary craft. If the article is all positive, then there’s no drama, or conflict, and no reason for the reader to engage in the story. It could be good information but it wouldn’t be a “proper story” that would interest readers.


Memory Writers Network

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