Memoir: Faithful Narratives are Boring

As we prepare to study two best-selling works—a memoir and biography (memoir’s straight-laced cousin)—probing them deeply for how the authors crafted their books, I find Steve Paulson on NPR’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge” has had fascinating guests. Scientists and writers talk about the brain and memory. You can listen to these shows here.

What they reveal is illuminating and encouraging for us memoir writers—or for any creative non-fiction writer. In our last workshop, we looked at the Magnificent Seven Entry Points to writing memoir (or any creative non-fiction). We’ll be looking at those points from the back door—following the authors’ journeys. In this way, we can learn much about story, situation, narrative arc, characters, and my favorite, “archetypal juice.” Interestingly, some of the things we’ve discovered about crafting memoir are sort of addressed by Paulson’s interviewees.

Nobel-prize winner, Eric Kandel talks about how the time we spend remembering far outweighs the time we spend living. Kandel describes two brains, two bodies—one that experiences and one that remembers. The one that remembers, according to Kandel’s research as I understood it, uses a different clock, one that is what I’ll call qualitative, as opposed to the clocks that measure precise seconds, minutes, hours. So for example: as a child my family spent anywhere between three and five days of each summer down the shore. But Down the Shore dominates the map of my memory, extends and flows over all else that happened during those three humid months. The rest of my childhood summers were spent longing or feeling restless (to escape NJ). Indeed, if I probe and look deeper, I find the other stuff.

But the most fascinating guest for us memoirists was Andre Aciman who talked “On Memoir and Memory.” Writer Aciman says a good memoir can capture emotional truth even when certain historical details are fictionalized. “We look back more than we look forward,” Aciman said.  There is in this an element of longing. We constantly revisit our losses, he says. This leads us to our narrative—there’s that “story gene” (my quotes, my phrase). We want story, story, story. We spend our whole lives trying to recover our footsteps. Aciman said, he wanted to “recover something I never loved—Alexandria Egypt. I was kicked out as a Jew. I never liked it, I wanted to get out, but I go back to Alexandria when I try to understand what happened, who am I, where am I going. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from?”

This is not nostalgia, says Aciman. He believes that most memories are made up of things we wished for but had never got. Memory is not always an accurate recreation of what happened, he says. Aciman believes many of us cannot tell the  difference between a wish and memory.

This is all highly debatable—but fascinating.

This brings up the question of Truth, Steve Paulson said to Aciman. To which Aciman says something I agree with categorically: “Faithful narratives are boring.”

Aciman says he is truthful. He simply “switches the  furniture around.” He says he  makes adjustments, creates dialogs “I couldn’t have heard but I capture their voice [as if it were] gossip recorded to me.”

Finally Aciman speculates “What is truth? There is greater truth to a certain degree in fiction.” He quotes Socrates who says history tells it as it was, literature tells it as it could or might have been. And asserts Aciman, “is far more accurate.”


Maddeningly fascinating fodder for debate! Especially as we gear up for the memoir study workshop,

In light of these thoughts on truth, memory, and memoir, it is going to be thrilling to do the comparison and contrast of the two works we’re reading. Click here for the details.