I am still thinking about the WVWW, and about the woman whose essay caught us all so off guard with its racism.  In particular, I am thinking of her defense.  “But,” she said, “that’s exactly what happened.”  She defended the use of cartoonish vernacular by saying, “But that’s really what she said,” and even defended a different problem with racism in another person’s work–where race, poverty, and single parenting were conflated with stupidity–by asking, “But what if that’s really the way they are?”

All this thinking has, of course, got me completely muddled.  My first thought is that this seems often to be the defense of the new writer–That’s What Really Happened.  I can remember using it myself when Pinckney Benedict told me something I wrote for his class wasn’t believable.  This was, of course, before age and experience taught me to understand remembrance as subjective.  What I wrote wasn’t what really happened–it was what I, with my flawed memory and singular take on things–remember to have happened, and there is a world of difference between the two things.

I think that’s been the hardest lesson to learn (and for those of you thinking that I’m having a harder time learning to manage my commas, I mean a different sort of difficulty); that I only think things are true, I do not know they are.  Now everything I write about becomes less, not more, concrete.  This is why my husband fades into the background of my writing; I do not want to toss my love–which is, after all, made up mostly of memory and then a little of looking forward–into the washwater.  It would be a horrible thing to have our history stripped of the patina of memory and laid bare. 

And, in the end, I think we are obligated to do that, at least with the facts.  I think that before I say, “My father made Eggs in a Cloud and blueberry muffins, which he laid on a table set with the ridiculous gold-leaf china that no one has used since…” I better write him and make damned sure I’m remembering that correctly.  That the only things I can say without fact-checking them are “… by that late in the evening, I hated my date and my silly dress…” and “…I felt loved after all.”

  1. inktarsia says:

    Oh, this razor blade of truth in CN. Feels very deconstructionist, and you know I don’t usually use words like that. CN writers must not, cannot give up the primary claim to personal perspective.

    Doesn’t hurt to double-check facts, but if one remembers something incorrectly, that in itself is an interesting exploration into perspective. What if he served you scrambled eggs & burnt toast on Corelleware? The fact you remember differently says something important about how you perceived that moment. (I see you, in that itchy dress, looking back at the princess and forward to the woman.) Fiction writers know this – they exploit it.

    Self-awareness in the recalling is key. If we play fair with saying what we remember and what we know for sure, the fidelity in the contract with the reader holds. If we use memoir as a tool to bleed experience over the page without reflection (or to play a trump card in Who Suffers Most or Ain’t I Somethin), we become an unreliable narrator.

    Seems like we’re always walking that spectrum, though. To some extent, we’re all unrealiable narrators. If we own up to that, maybe we’re freed to write what we really see, and trade dogged factuality for perception, impression, insight.

  2. sarahemc2 says:

    I think you are permitted to include the misremembered version… but that you have to then say it was misremembered and clean it up to the truth as best you can. (I’ve been reading The Liars Club, and Karr is brilliant about that.) If not, why is anyone upset with Frey’s embellishments?

    I think of myself now as 26 and slender, but I am not. When I describe myself in my writing, though, I have to be more honest than that–I have to report what I see in the mirror, not in my head. I can say I am startled by the mirror-self, but I can’t pretend not to be her.

  3. inktarsia says:

    Those pesky mirrors. sigh Seems as if self-awareness would say that what’s in the mirror today is only one layer of the story. I keep a picture of me from a friend’s wedding (skinny size 10) by my mirror. I’m still that girl, too. But now I know how to cook for 12 and prepare taxes.

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