Lies, Truth, and Memoir

Like most people, I've been following the James Frey fiasco about the lies and exaggerations in his bestselling book, A Million Little Pieces. Here are my thoughts:

It's a shame this situation happened. I think gaining the trust of a reading public is vitally important. It's already unfortunate that most people don't trust most words being thrown at them--from ads, to newspapers, religious personalities, to politicians. They all claim to have "the truth," although we know this is not always the case.

A writer on the other hand has to stand on truth. For one thing we're not beholden to anything else but the truth. We don't have to please a church, a government, or even any political or social trend. The truth at all costs.

The problem with Frey and his alleged memoir, from all that I've read and from his own "Note to the Reader" (that apparently will be part of subsequent printings of the book) is that he doesn't seem to thoroughly understand the depth of his lies in the guise of a memoir.

Although it's a relatively new genre, the memoir does have integrity and purpose. It's memory with unique and important insights through the prism of a singular, albeit subjective, experience and personal history that is often told in dramatic, literary, and readable style. Nothing in there says you can lie.

The best memoirs are written by the best writers. Good writing, important for any genre, is one of the best features of a good memoir. James Frey says he wanted his story "to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require." Yes, memoirs can do that. And from all accounts (I haven't read the book), Frey is an engaging and original voice in literature. But you can't lie.

Truth must not only sound and feel like truth. It must be verifiable. By more than one person. By people who don't have anything to do with the book or the writer.

I've written ten books. Only one is a memoir. My other books, all of which I'm fond of, are in children's literature, poetry, nonfiction, and including a short story collection and a novel.

I will venture to say that all my books have truth and stand on truth. But I can only vouch for the memoir and the nonfiction book as being verifiable.

While my fiction and children's books all have truth, they are stories of imagination--I made them up. My poetry is mostly about real events and people, but they are poems. There is license to change the facts as long as I don't alter the truth. You don't have to verify the facts in a poem. Poems follow a different cloud, are on another stream, gather into a deeper ocean. But they have to ring true, be cast in the spell of truth, even if they are not factually accurate.

Social or personal mythology have the same concerns. They are fantastic stories, full of images, events, people, dreams, and voices--yet they have so many ways to enter into the truths of our time, the truths of a people, or even the special, particular truths of one person.

I've been a journalist, off and on, for around twenty-five years. Facts and accuracy are the tools of our trade. But so is story. Only you have to tell the story without changing the facts. In the past few years, highly-publicized cases of people who have made up characters and quotes, and touted this as journalism, have tainted the trust that people should have for journalists.

But there's another basis for the mistrust. Too many journalists are constantly hounding the facts, but they don't always uncover any precious truths (the wholeness of a story, for example). Still I think most journalists today are thorough when it comes to the facts.

Memoir is one of those genres where truth is paramount even if you can't verify the actual conversations (who has a tape recorder during the most dramatic moments in their life?), the actual days and times of events, and even if your memory (again there's insight in a subjective prism, but also faulty recall) gets some facts turned around.

Still, you don't lie. You don't intentionally say something that you know is not verifiably accurate and call that a fact.

In Always Running, I put a statement in the preface, something that James Frey failed to do in A Million Little Pieces, saying that I changed names and some of the facts of the book. I did this to protect the innocent AND the guilty. I was privy to many crimes and rapes and deaths. I wanted to tell the truth of what I saw, experienced, and did without hurting anyone else in the process.

I do have newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, and some documents here and there verifying the shootings, deaths, and crimes. Anyone can go back into my life and verify where I claimed to have lived, about my family, my schooling, my arrests.

But they won't be able to verify my emotions, my thoughts, or what I went through; my conflicts, fears or angers. They have to trust that what I'm saying about these things is true. However, I have to earn that trust. I have to tell the truths and relate verifiable facts so that when I speak on things that can't be verified that trust is solid.

Also, my insights on my life and the gang life that I experienced are only my side of the story. My piece of the puzzle. My way of looking at things (which can't help but be askew). People have to be interested in this or they wouldn't bother with my book.

Yet, if you ask my family, my homeboys, the police, the principal of my last high school, they will most likely have another perspective, another viewpoint, another summation of the same circumstances I describe. Memoir is not all the facts, all the witnesses, all the sides. It's one side. One story. One viewpoint. Mine.

I take responsibility for that aspect of the memoir.

If somebody wants to do a riveting journalistic piece about the gang life in my neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they'd be welcomed. But it would hardly have anything to do with my book (although, I'm sure much will intersect).

Always Running is based on actual events, actual people, and actual facts. Most of it can be verified. But I also altered names and circumstances. I tried not to alter anything to change the truth (although, my memory may not have gotten everything correct). I never tried to lie. I never thought I needed to lie.

In fact, and here you have to trust me on this, I kept many more things out of my memoir than kept in. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. A litany of murders, rapes, crimes, and interesting characters just wouldn't work. I had to decide what facts I was going to use and what facts I wouldn't use. The truth can be edited.

The most compelling aspect of my book, any book, I hope, is its healing aspect. This could have happened if I wrote a novel. But it's a memoir. The healing had to be through the facts of my young life.

Still, it's a memoir because it's not a lie (even with all the changes and personal quirks and possible unintentional mistakes that may pop up here and there).

I would hope that writers doing memoirs keep all this in mind. Don't lie. Don't lie deliberately. And if you do make changes, just say so.

To summarize: Fiction has truth, although the facts and characters are most likely imagined.

Poetry has truth, although the words are condensed, filled with metaphors, images, emotions, and are unable to tell everything.

Journalism has truth but the facts, the people, and the dialogue have got to be verifiable and undeniably real (you can't change people's words, for example).

Memoir is also truth, based on facts, memory, real experiences, and events, yet it's allowed to have changes of names and events in the keeping of a dramatic, literary work. This does not give one license to lie. A good memoirist, of which there are many, are conscious and responsible to the differences.

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