One of the questions about memoir we hear most often at the Amsterdam Writing Workshops is: How much freedom do we have to invent? Is “making things up” in this kind of narrative the same as lying? Consider what the accomplished memoirist Vivian Gornick has to say.
Vivian Gornick: I don’t think of [making things up in a memoir] as lying. I think of it as composition, and I think of the memoir as a legitimate literary genre which has to be composed. If you look at memoirs from time immemorial, a man in his fifties will repeat a whole conversation the family had when he was eight years old. What? He’s making it up. And there’s nothing wrong with it.
The only thing that I do believe is owed is not to make up anything out of whole cloth. Don’t claim, “I grew up in a castle,” or “I grew up in a mud flat.” Otherwise, it seems obvious to me. A memoir is your experience and what you are responsible for is the shaping of that experience. And this kind of writing needs an educated readership. A memoir should be the shaping of a single piece of experience and the memoirist should have the right to shape it in any way he wants except, I think, to make things up. And the other very important thing is it’s obvious to the reader that the writer is the narrator. The narrator is not a made-up figure. And that narrator has to be reliable. I believe that really firmly.
Like George Orwell, for instance. Now Orwell himself was a son of a bitch. He was really a bad guy. He was narrow, grudging, sexist; he was a lot of terrible things. But when he sat down to write, the narrator he had created took over, and that creature is responsible for all the great essays that we so admire him for. That’s a perfect example of making a persona. What matters in Orwell is that he has persuaded us he is a truth speaker. Without the narrative persona, there would be no pleasure in any of the writing.
Interviewer: Well, it would be just like life.
Vivian Gornick: Yeah, right. It would be like a police blotter, or a transcript from an analyst’s office.
Interviewer: Pity the analyst.
Vivian Gornick: Pity the analyst, is right.