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Joining the James Frey: Is it Okay to Lie in Your Memoir?

James Frey's Fictionalized Memoir (or Memoirized Fiction?)

Oprah’s interviews with James Frey and the recent article in Salon about his first interview with Oprah drew intense emotions on both sides of the issue. Some say memoir is fiction anyway–who can really remember honestly exactly what happened in one’s life? So what’s a little tinkering with truth?  Others say James Frey is ruining it for everyone (everyone being serious writers of memoir) because as readers question the veracity of all memoirs, memoirs lose their power–why not just read fiction? And some say, “Who cares?”

I’m in the “I care” camp. While there’s no way to capture “the absolute truth” and certain conventions, like dialogue, are generally understood to be an approximation of a conversation colored by the memory and perception of the author, there’s a difference between getting as close to the truth as you can and out and out lying.

Frey told Oprah, “I don’t have a lot of respect for memoir. I think most writers of memoirs do what I do. You play around with things. You tell the best story you can.” Whoa, sounds like a bit of a sociopath to me. But it does beg the question new writers often ask me:

“What can I (and can’t I) do with the truth in my memoir?”

Here are my suggestions:

  • In general, don’t make stuff up about people and don’t make up characters–that’s fiction.
  • Which brings me to my next point. When is it okay to make stuff up? When you tell your readers up front. If you want to protect someone’s identity, have a note at the beginning of the book  saying that you changed some identifying information about a person–and change a few details so they won’t be recognized.
  • Too many characters? I’d say it’s okay to do what Shirley MacLaine did in Out on a Limb–she offered an author’s note at the beginning that said one of the characters in the book was fictional, but was a composite of several true friends of hers. The events were real, but in the interest of narrative she made these different friends all one character. Why is it okay? Because she told us up front! If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t be okay.
  • Verify whatever information you can–dates, weather, whether a particular song was even out the year that you’re writing about. Anything that doesn’t fit with the truth will call your whole story into question–so research the details you think you remember to make sure you’re as accurate as can be.

What if you can’t quite remember what happened? As you write, experiment. See if you can:

1. Interview others from your past who may be able to jog your memory.

2. Visit places that may help you remember details.

3. Start writing about the parts you do remember.

What if your story includes someone else’s? One of my book writing course participants wanted to include some of her mother’s story in her memoir. She interviewed her mother but there were important gaps. She told the story, spelling out that she imagined much of that chapter based on the information her mom had given her.

Why didn’t Frey sell his book as fiction? He tried and he couldn’t.

Does it pay to lie? It seemed so when Frey’s book made him millions. But now that he’s involved in lawsuits, it seems that Karma may catch up with the uber-creative memoirist. If you really want to make stuff up, do so–just call it fiction.

 

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Alan Stransman says

    I am the author of two memoirs – one concerning an entrepreneurial venture in which I was involved, entitled “Don’t Let Your Dream Business Turn Into a Nightmare: A Cautionary Tale for Would-Be Entrepreneurs” and the other on my adventures and misadventures in the world of dating and relationships, entitled “So, Why Have You Never Been Married?”: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Lunacy, and I find the notion that a memoir could or should include fictional elements to be ridiculous.

    The memoir writer must have exceptional powers of recall – that is, simply, one of the basic requirements, in the same way that a singer must have a sense of pitch. What gives memoirs and other forms of non-fiction their force is the fact that they are based upon fact. The challenge for the memoir writer is not only to recall events in rich and colourful detail, but to shape those events into an engaging narrative – memoir is all about story-telling, but again, stories that are based upon fact, or, stated another way, real events.

    Fiction-writing is, to me, an entirely separate discipline. In writing my memoirs,I needed to plumb my memory to relive events from the past in vivid sound and colour – to see what people were wearing, how they moved, where they were sitting or standing, what they said, what I said, etc. – this is a totally different mental activity from conjuring a fictional dream – and the measure of a memoir writer is the ability to recreate reality in a compelling and engaging way – not to create fiction. Mixing the two genres makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  2. Conner Moore MD says

    In my memoir about my 4o years as a Maine pediatrician, I often needed to get permission from now adult children and their parents to tell their stories from decades ago. I always asked them to edit the final draft of their chapter for accuracy – and they were not shy about doing that. I also was able to find old hospital records on microfilm. Some stories were written as they occurred. My RN wife worked in my office and has a laser memory. She had the final call. I was gratified when after the book was published many nurses and parents told me that I got it -“just about right.” I would side with Lisa’s position.

  3. Laura says

    As an avid reader, and aspiring author, I believe that a memoir is a genre that needs to stay as close to the truth as possible. I agree with Lisa that if the reader is informed before hand that certain liberties were taken then it is up to the reader to decide what they believe and what they don’t. If I choose to purchase a memoir I expect it to be honestly portrayed as the truth. If I want fiction I will purchase fiction.

  4. Paul says

    I fall more on the side of David Sedaris when he says, “I’ve always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it’s 97% true, I think that’s true enough. I’m not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn’t true.

    True enough is my personal litmus test.

  5. Summer Jarvis says

    This is a huge question that I have had lately. I read humorous memoirists like Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro and think that they probably fabricate some of the content in their books, or at least exaggerate and add to true stories. This doesn’t bother me too much, probably because they admit to changing some. Like Jen, she says her books are “mostly true memoir.” I often wonder how much is mostly true and how much isn’t, because I want to know how far I can go to make a story more interesting. So far, I have changed very little from the truth in my writing, but I do wonder if my stories would improve if I fabricated a little bit of them. I could just call it a “mostly true memoir,” right? As long as it is entertaining and connects with people, does it really matter?

  6. MarionL says

    I wish that James Frey had sought to publish his book as an autobiographical novel rather than a memoir. This would have solved the problem.

  7. Jing says

    What about instances when people remember things differently? I’m working on a memoir right now and there’s a memory of mine that someone says happened differently. Of course in Frey’s case, there are arrest records. In mine, it’s just two different versions. Which one would be the one to go by?

    • Lisa Tener says

      You may want to have a disclaimer in the book or on your website saying that you got different versions of the story from different people and did your best to go with what seemed true, but…etc.

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