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Friday, May 13, 2011

Memoir, the Fallibility of Memory and Ghostwriting

The danger of memoir is the unreliability of memory, and the danger comes with the territory. In remembering, I am telling myself a story about something that happened in my life. Did it happen the way I remember it?

Sometimes when my mother reads some story I’ve written about my childhood, she remarks to one of my sisters, “Pamela has a wonderful imagination.” Clearly, my mother thinks I’ve taken literary liberties with the past. Have I? A friend of ours is continually trying to “set the record straight” with his siblings. Will he ever succeed? I have no desire to substitute someone else’s memories for the ones I’ve cherished and relived for years--reinforcing them on each visit--but our friend is a historian and, as such, wedded to the idea of the facts, the facts and nothing but the facts.

Well, imagine that you do not consider yourself either writer or historian and you have someone else write your memoir. Your desire is to have your story told, and the ghostwriter invents a few literary devices and scenes to make it “better.” Should you object? Doesn’t the writer know better than you what makes a good story? I mean, is that what you think? Now imagine that your story becomes a best-selling book and you are asked to speak to groups across the country and are able in this way to raise a lot of money for your cause. What do you think now?

Do you know the book I’m talking about? Do you know the man whose story it is? What do you think of recent accusations of falsehood made against him?

The jury is still out on this one, but you can probably tell I’m sympathetic to the poor beleaguered nonwriter. I don’t think he set out to perpetrate a fraud. But again, what do you think?

Then there was Jim Harrison’s first non-poetry book, a novel titled Wolf: A False Memoir. That really puts the ball back in the reader’s court, doesn’t it?


Gerry said...

There's a big difference between hiring someone to tell "a good story"--that might be A Novel--and hiring someone to write the true, i.e., nonfiction, story of your experiences as you remember them.

Surely the nonwriter is not also a nonreader, and surely he read the nonmemoir before it went to press. He had every opportunity to say "that is not my story"--or even, "Whoa! That's a complete fabrication!"

P. J. Grath said...

A complete fabrication wouldn't be nearly so thorny a problem. It's these partial fabrications that have so many people nonplussed. You wouldn't do it, Gerry, and I wouldn't do it (we would write our own stories, for starters), but it's hard to sort out the Mortensen case. So far there's a lawsuit and a counter-suit and opinions that run the gamut. See
if you're interested.

P. J. Grath said...

Here's someone else who seems the story from more than one angle:

Dawn Parker said...

Read Jon Krakauer's piece. He believed in Mortenson - even gave him money - until he became disillusioned. Krakauer sets out the case against Mortenson methodically and thoroughly - and with journalistic integrity.

Dawn said...

Yes I know the story you speak of. It's on my list to read...then all the contraversy..can't decide if that makes me want to read it more. Or not. I agree with Gerry...he must have read the book before it was published...if there were substantial errors of truth he could have corrected them. But if he agreed that license made a better story then it should have been marketed as something less than non-fiction.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn P., thanks for the Krakauer tip. I don't download books, but I found a site that condenses K's 90 pages into a few main points that go together to make a pretty damning portrait. It's here:

Dawn K., I have to admit that I haven't read this book! In our "division of literary labor," my volunteer Bruce took on this one and wrote a short review for the blog.

Bottom line seems to be the old story: Research a cause before you make a donation.

dmarks said...

I know the book which you mean.

I think "Wolf" is underrated, both as a book, and as a film adaptation.

P. J. Grath said...

I'd hardly call the movie "Wolf" an adaptation of the book, dmarks. What in the movie besides the title came from the book? Admittedly, it's been years since I've read it, but--???