“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.” — Oscar Wilde
“Most writers regard truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.” — Mark Twain
One of the big questions when it comes to memoir writing has always been how much of a story is actually true — and it’s now an even bigger question since author James Frey has admitted to embellishing and fabricating much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and its sequel, My Friend Leonard. Yet when it comes to personal writing, truth has never been particularly easy to define, and this is confusing (and perhaps appealing) for writers who may be tempted to sacrifice truth for what they think makes a better story.
Merriam-Webster defines truth as “the state of being the case: fact”; yet its listing also includes an archaic definition — “fidelity, constancy; sincerity in action, character, and utterance” — which is much more in line with the way memoirs are written. The psychotherapist Alice Miller, in the preface to her newest book, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, writes, “I never use the word ‘truth’ in a metaphysical sense. The meaning I give it is invariably that of a subjective entity, related to the actual life of the individual concerned.” In other words, when it comes to remembering your past, especially if it was a dramatic or traumatic one, the only truth that exists is the truth that you experienced, the truth that you remember.
Yet this does not — and should not — give writers license to embellish or fabricate events; it’s one thing to remember an incident differently than your sister remembers it, and it’s another to recreate it for dramatic effect, thus misleading your readers.
I found myself applauding Riverhead’s decision last week to cancel its contract with Frey (not that it’s any of my business). But I was pleased to know that despite the controversy and the questions, the accusations and confessions, in the end, the truth does matter — at least to this publisher. The desicion shows respect for its readers, an acknowledgment that they deserve to be treated honestly, something that I think should be on every writer’s mind, every time he or she sits down to write.