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Writers have various ways of getting round the problem of shaping messy reality into a cohesive and artistically satisfying narrative. One way is to call your story fiction, however true some of it may be. Dave Eggers called his autobiographical book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a novel. In Australia, writers such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), Marion Halligan (The Fog Garden) and Greg Roberts (Shantaram) have followed the same path.
Another way is to produce that uneasy oxymoron, "a fictional memoir". That's the subtitle for such vastly different books as A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley's classic account of his life as an alcoholic and insane asylum inmate, and True at First Light, a 1953 manuscript by Ernest Hemingway, edited and published long after his death by his son Patrick. This alerts the reader to the probability that at least some parts of the story have been invented - though it may never be clear which parts.
A third way is to put in a note to explain where, and sometimes why, the author has deviated from the facts (which may also incidentally keep the lawyers happy). The memoirist Augusten Burroughs put in just such a note in his second memoir, Dry: "This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events." In fact, Burroughs told Terry Greene Sterling, he had changed only small details, and put in the disclaimer to keep his publisher comfortable.
In the end, I think, it gets down to how much the reader can trust the memoirist. There is certainly a spiritual, aesthetic and psychological truth to a life story that will not necessarily be found in the facts of that life - indeed, the facts may get in the way. But if the memoirist has deliberately deviated from the memory of what actually happened, for whatever reason, then the reader should be informed of this somewhere in the book. And if that information gets too long and complicated, then maybe the most honest thing to do is to call the book fiction.
This article first appeared in Australia's Melbourne Age Newspaper on August 31, 2003
Reprinted with Permission