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Memoirists, People Who Invent the Truth

I love browsing in used bookstores, especially if they are well-organized showcases of old books. Those who know me understand my weakness for books. If not for my wife's riding herd on my impulsive instincts, I'd spend way too much money there.


Because our local used bookstore has a high turnover of its subject-categorized inventory, one never knows what he will find on the shelves. I sometimes find nothing that tempts me to override my wife's financial caveats. At other times, however, I can't resist, especially if she's not with me to counter the temptation with a common-sense objection.


Such was the situation I found myself in a few weeks ago, when the two of us decided to browse the shelves a bit. She went off looking for books on a subject for a teacher in-service presentation she was preparing. I went the opposite direction, perusing first the history shelves and then the writing titles. I came away with a gem, and the clincher that convinced me that I absolutely had to have the book were the facts that it had been edited by William Zinsser, the author of the famed book On Writing Well, and that among the contributors were Russell Baker and Annie Dillard, two authors whose writings I had enjoyed.

The book was titled Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Zinsser's introduction to the book was worth the volume's modest $5.00 price.


He defined a memoir as "recalling a particular period and place" in one's life, and he distinguished it from autobiography. He described writing memoir as "beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language." He explained how a memoir, even the painful and hard-to-tell portions, is "written with love," not out of malice or a desire to get event or set the record straight. "There's no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the writers are as honest about their own young selves as they are about the sins of their elders."


Zinsser went on to show how good memoir requires "integrity of intention" and careful construction. "Memoir writers," he wrote, "must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events."


Because memory is personal and memory can be fallible, every person's story, even if describing the same time, person, or event, will be in some way different. The truth, he concluded, is probably somewhere between the different remembrances.


Zinsser encouraged writers to "write boldly. . . . Be true to yourself and to the culture you were born into. . . .Tell your story as only you can tell it."


The chapters that follow Zinsser's introduction are written by nine famous memoirists, each offering his or her own explanation of how they wrote and advice for how other writers can do it, too.


Russell Baker, for example, grew up in a large family, which taught him that "Writers have to cultivate the habit early in life of listening to people other than themselves." He said that experience "was wonderful training . . . having to give up the right to show off and be a childhood performer and just sit there, quietly watching and listening to the curious things grown-ups did and said."


Here's another lesson Baker said he had to learn: "The biographer's problem is that he never knows enough. The autobiographer's problem is that he knows much too much. . . . [W]hen you're writing about yourself, the problem is what to leave out." That was a lesson that many of the contributors to the book mentioned having to learn.


For example, Annie Dillard wrote, "The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out."


Dillard also kept my attention by mentioning that she had grown up only a few houses away from where David McCullough had grown up in Pittsburgh. (If you read my post from last week, you know how much I respect the works of McCullough! What it must have been like to know Kid McCullough!) And she "read so many books about the Second World War that I knew how to man a minesweeper before I knew how to walk in high heels."


She also explained how "Nonfiction books lured me away from the world . . . And novels dragged me back into the world. . . ." The nonfiction I can relate to, but I'd rather be lured into reading than dragged!


As for writing of memoir, she, too, emphasized that it was not a genre for engaging in interpersonal conflict, insisting that although memoir "is an art, it's not a martial art. . . ."


Her parting words of wisdom were that "What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It's a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It's a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don't do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field. . . . You do it out of love. Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong. . . . Caring passionately about something isn't against nature. . . . It's what we're here to do."


What is your passion? Are you writing about it so that others might become passionate about it, too?



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