Thursday, April 22, 2010

MEMOIR, FICTION AND TRUTH

From David Shields' book "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto," some quotations he has assembled. That several of the following ideas refer to memoir does not make them any less relevant to people who are not memoirists; aren't we all always composing little stories out of our own experiences -- and telling them to ourselves or others?

"What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination." (104, Susan Cheever)

"Tell the story of your life that is the most emotionally cathartic; the story you 'remember' is covering the "real story" anyway...  Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on -- however removed that may be from reality." (161, 164 Patrick Duff)

"Our personal experience, though it may convey great truths, most likely won't be verified by security camera later... Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What's stored in that memory isn't the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience." (172, Alice Marshall)

"I have never written fiction, and this memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is a memoir true to life. Because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer's business is to find the shape of the unruly life and to serve her story... The moment you put your pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life -- that one damn thing after another -- is lost." (193, Dorothy Gallagher, in this NYT piece)


(A NOTE: "Reality Hunger" is composed of 618 passages, mostly quotations, and most of which David Shields has "revised, at least a little." So the above may not be exact quotations. But that suits Shields, who says a major focus of the book is appropriation and plagiarism, and that he must engage in those practices in order to treat them. He attributes the passages only on his publisher's insistence, and only in an appendix, which he encourages readers to physically remove from the book with scissors. I've erred on the side of his publisher here, and provided citations. Besides, while I appreciate the notion of being free to play with other people's ideas, I often like to go back to the source -- or rather the previous source, because no doubt the person being quoted is herself drawing on still other, prior ideas in circulation -- so as to know more of the life that produced the idea. Shields' book is provocative, but what I would've found still more provocative is if he left his name off the cover, or if he didn't cite the plentiful blurbs on the front and back jacket. If he doesn't care to cite the people in his book, why should he want his own name, or those of the people who praise him, to be known?) 

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