Painting by Ed Ruscha, for James Frey
Anyone who reads my blog knows that my life is all about telling the truth, that is – my personal truth. But who are we to define what another’s truth is? And what is truth in art?
I read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces shortly after it came out, and loved it. As a person with an addict father and brother, it opened my eyes and helped me to see things in a new way. I immediately sent the book to my father, and he too, was rocked to his foundation by it.
And then the big scandal hit. It seems Frey “embellished” details of his memoir.
Did this change the experience I had reading the book? No. Did it change the fact that the book had enabled me to see addiction in a different way, and to have a better understanding of my father? No. I didn’t care whether Frey had spent three months or 3 minutes in prison. I didn’t care whether he had anesthesia at the dentist or not. The book was ground breaking and fresh and artistic. His voice was compelling and authentic. It moved me. It made me think. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do?
I, too, wrote a memoir. I spent 37 years trying to forget my past, and another eight in therapy and in writing groups, trying to remember it. And even though the book is written, I struggle with whether or not to publish it, because truth is a powerful blade, and you have to be careful how you wield it. And, as I know all too well, many people will challenge your truth. But memoir is not journalism. Memoir is your own personal story, as experienced through your own filters, as told by YOU. No one else can tell us what our truth is, or should be.
One friend, after reading my manuscript, had a hard time believing I could remember so much detail about my young life. As I told her, in memoir writing, you start from the deepest most searing memories, and you work from there. The moment that changed your life could have been one simple statement, or a memory that is a 20-second video clip in your head. But that does not a story make, and so we must paint in the rest of the picture. None of us have lived our lives carrying around a tape recorder, so you do your best to fill in the missing details. I kept journals all my life, which helped a lot. I also did genealogy research and interviewing family and google fact-checking on my own stories.
But in recreating the rest of it, you have to ask yourself, what is emotionally true to me in this scene? How did I feel? What colors did I see, what did the room smell like? When writing dialogue, you have to bring each character back to life in your head. How did Uncle Joe stand, speak, walk? What were sayings he always used? Would it be honest to say he would have used one of his famous “Uncle Joe-isms” in the scene?
All of my writing teachers over the years have told me to “write what is true”. But in memoir, some of the strokes are loose. One of my favorite essayists, Tony Earley, wrote a story about watching the moon landing in 1969. After it was published, a fact-checker rebuked him for saying it had been a full moon that night, because in fact, it had been a quarter moon. Does that mean Tony Earley is a liar, and everyone who read that piece should get their money back? No. It means that as a small child, the moon seemed so huge and unreachable as he looked up through his neighbor’s telescope, that his mind remembered it as big and round. Our memories do that – fill in the blanks. Each of us will tell the same story a different way. What is true for you may not be true for me, and there is no such thing as absolute truth anyway. So who are we to say what was emotionally true for Frey?
One of the things I found so exhilarating about A Million Little Pieces was Frey’s irreverent disregard for rules: He used no punctuation, capitalization or writing rules. He had no MFA. A copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was certainly nowhere to be found in his writing lair. So why is it a shock to anyone that he paid no attention to “memoir writing rules” – and what are those, anyway? His book was his own piece of art- a world that Frey has often said he is more influenced by than the literary world. And so, he wrote his story in his own way. As Frey said on Oprah yesterday, Picasso’s “self-portrait” has him looking like a strange, blue, cockeyed monster, so does that mean he’s a liar and a fake? A Million Little Pieces is Frey’s self portrait, and maybe he is portraying himself as a strange, blue, cockeyed monster.
I find it ridiculous that the world went so crazy with judgment on Frey, including Oprah. I have to admit, I was disgusted watching her persecute him on national television in 2006. He didn’t deserve that. As a writer, I personally would never stretch the truth the way Frey did, but I’m not him. I write the way I write, and he writes the way he writes. He plays fast and loose with the rules, I don’t. So what. Either you like the book and it opens your eyes, or it doesn’t. Get over it and let Frey get back to using his voice his way.
I will agree that he and his publishers shouldn’t have called his book “memoir”, because it casts doubt on the rest of us who are trying to write in that genre and be taken seriously. Maybe he could have done what Tony Earley did in his book Somehow Form A Family – which was to classify his book as “Stories That Are Mostly True”. Or, like a TV movie of the week, he could have said it was a story based on his own life experiences. That would have solved the problem. He initially shopped the book as a novel, and it didn’t sell. They asked him to publish it as memoir, and it was an off-the-charts success, inspiring people all over the world. So that was his deal with the Devil- letting the book be mis-categorized for the sake of getting it sold. But for this man to have been nailed to the cross and humiliated in front of the world, to the point where he had to move his family to another country to escape the finger pointing and threats, we have to ask ourselves not what is wrong with James Frey, but what is wrong with us?