We’ve invited anthology co-editor Herta Feely to write for First Person Plural.
Confessions: Fact or Fiction?
By Herta Feely
What are the boundaries between fiction and memoir? Can you, the reader, tell the difference between the two genres? And, how far can, or should, an author stretch the truth in the service of art?
Let me give you a quick test:
If you’re writing an essay and the story includes information about a dog-grooming company’s pink vans, is it okay to say the vans are purple because it sounds better in the sentence? How about in that same story, you change the name of a bar from The Boston Saloon to Bucket of Blood because it’s more interesting. And lastly, because this is a story about a boy who jumped from a building to his death, and you want to keep the focus on him, you change another death by jumping that same day to a suicide by hanging. How do you feel about that?
What if the author of that essay, which exists, told you that he made these changes because he feels his first duty is to art, his second to truth? Would you argue with him, as the fact-checker in real life did?
Let me switch gears a bit. When you read memoir, you expect the story to be true, right? But exactly how true? Pretty true, half true, or only a little bit true?
Generally speaking, there are many similarities between fiction (a made-up story) and memoir, (a story that actually happened to someone). Memoir uses many elements of fiction, just like a novel. They both develop characters, have a plot, use scenes, setting and dialogue.
So let’s take dialogue. Everyone knows people writing memoirs make up dialogue, right? After all, who can remember what they said yesterday, let alone a decade ago? So let’s say we cut the author some slack when it comes to dialogue. I mean as long as they write it to the best of their memory, then it’s okay? If they adhere as closely to the “facts” as their memory allows, then we’re okay with that. Right?
But at what point, dialogue aside, is there simply too much fiction in a memoir to call it a memoir? For example, you might recall the million little lies in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces? A book he’d tried to sell as a novel, but without success. Then, as a memoir, it became the 2nd biggest selling book of 2005! Is that because we the readers prefer a story that’s salacious, gritty, sexy, or sensational to be “true”? So what role, if any, do readers play in a writer’s impulse to stretch the truth? Or is the desire to get published the only motivating factor?
The panelists will argue these issues after reading short segments from their pieces in Confessions: Fact or Fiction? After each reading you will be asked to determine the story’s genre. This anthology of 22 stories (of love, lies, loss and betrayal) sets out to explore the murky boundary between fiction and memoir, and the writer’s obligation to the reader.
On Sunday, July 8th, 2 pm, meet a panel of writers (authors, and creative writing teachers) and listen to them battle it out! Your opinions count, so come armed!
Herta Feely, co-editor of Confessions: Fact or Fiction?