Friday, January 27, 2006


The truth is that yesterday I posted all about the James Frey controversy over his best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Then, of course, Blogger froze up on me and I lost the entire thing. Even today, I had a picture to post and was unable to for whatever technical reason escapes this "mid-level operational" computer user. So, you will just have to trust me that the Frey post was very well-researched and timely--as he was appearing on Oprah yesterday afternoon LIVE from Chicago. Don't believe me? See: (or click on Link below)

I feel that absolute truth is essential in memoir. I have read so many of them and the reason a person is drawn to the genre is to experience something profound and personal and real. I admire Frey for his willingness to allow Oprah Winfrey to grill him on national television. I admire him for eventually admitting, "Yes, I lied." How battered and emotional he looked was touching to an old softie like me, until I really contemplated exactly what it was he was trying to accomplish on the show. He wanted to be pardoned for misrepresenting reality. He wanted to do "damage control", but I don't know how sincere it was. James Frey seems to want to move on, and I cannot blame him there--but, millions and millions of people believed in his story and were inspired to change their own lives. It would still have had the "emotional truths" he mentioned if it had been categorized as a novel. I don't know what you do from here...a wonderful book, a talented author, both now tainted with this whole drama over truth and lies.

I wrote last time about Jimmy Santiago Baca and his memoir, A Place to Stand. Baca was brave enough to be brutally honest about his drug dealing, his years behind bars in a maximum security prison, his illiteracy, and his eventual rise from adversity. Most of these things were key to Frey's book--but, Baca was never an Oprah Book Club selection...and Baca didn't lie. Memoir happens to be the "most widely read" genre for me personally in the past few years. I think of John Edgar Wideman and his Brothers and Keepers. He wasn't afraid to talk about his brother's lifelong sentence for murder and how he was left behind to "bear witness". Wideman looks at race and poverty and ugliness--without flinching or fabricating. My dear writing friend, Deborah Santana, also touched on this in her memoir, Space Between the Stars, which could have easily veered off into a "tale of celebrity", but instead covered race, spirituality, and self-exploration with honesty and tenderness. Natalie Goldberg, my supreme writing guru, allowed her vulnerability and mistakes guide her latest book, The Great Failure. She was afraid, she told us last year--as she wrote the book. But, she believed the deeper truths were the most important.

I could literally go on all day long...Alix Kates Shulman wrote a brilliant memoir, Drinking the Rain about the healing, sensuality, and delights of the natural world--she really went and lived in isolation on an island off of the coast of Maine, she didn't pretend to. There are countless writers who have done the same in recent years--Gretel Erlich is amazing, for one, hell--even Julia Butterfly Hill (the woman who refused to come down out of a redwood tree for over two years as a political protest) wrote a book about her experiences. There are travel memoirs where people get lost in the world to find themselves (Rita Golden Gelman and her Tales of a Female Nomad instantly comes to mind because I met her and she was passionate and sincere). Bee Lavender wrote about illness, teenage motherhood, and identity in her magical memoir, Lessons in Taxidermy. You have the frighteningly honest women like Mary Karr, who not only chronicled her dysfunctional family but also her emerging adolescent sexuality (The Liar's Club and Cherry respectively). Alice Sebold, best-selling fiction writer, penned a memoir about her brutal rape at the hands of a violent murdering stranger called Lucky. Kathy Dobie was bold enough to write of her descent into destructive sexual permissiveness (which culminated in a group date-rape by four men) in her The Only Girl In the Car.

Memoirs written by new mothers have surged in popularity after Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions was first published. Here, Lamott obliterated the illusions about mothering an infant--a taboo, because everyone knows of the images of motherhood as pastel and soft and fluffy. This mini-genre has gotten so large as to be called "Momoir"--a title I feel can be dismissive because there is some unbelievably gritty mom-writing out there. Susan Johnson's A Better Woman fell under this label as would the new book, Inconsolable, by Marrit Ingman--detailing post-partum depression and a colicky newborn. These women (and SO many others) have done a service for others by not being too afraid of the label "bad mother"--and therefore, opening up the realities of mothering for our society as a whole.

I've been knee-deep in stripper memoirs lately, too, because it is helping me with my novel. Books like Candy Girl by Diablo Cody, Ivy League Stripper by Heidi Mattson, and Bare by Columbia University alumni Elisabeth Eaves break down stereotypes about women working in the sex industry. How candid these women are when discussing society, female bodies, and the "virgin-whore" label is shocking. They are willing to have their faces and names associated with the one of the most traditionally regarded "low-class" activities for women in our time. They don't hide and they don't fabricate.

So, James Frey, with his "million little dollars" (and then some) should really consider what he might have done not only to himself, but to the industry. Now, readers go through his book and doubt anything he says, even though I'm sure the VAST majority of what he writes is honest. Not only that, I know I will pick up memoirs looking for "disclaimers" like his publisher has suggested (after the fact, of course) to see how honest this "true story" will be. Or...maybe I'll just stick to fiction for a while where I know the characters are "characters" and the story, a "story". Emotional truths are emotional truths. But there is a difference between fact and fiction--and at least, with a novel in my hands, I'll know what that distinction is.


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