Memory, Authenticity & the Genre of Memoir

You always get at least one James Frey reference in a discussion about memoir. The memoirist/fabulist, whose initial embrace and eventual evisceration by Oprah Winfrey is now a touchstone in any culture discussion about authenticity in memoir, got his obligatory mention in the panel on “Memory, Authenticity, & the Genre of Memoir” held Oct. 8 in Smith Memorial Student Union.
Although Frey is an extreme example, his story illuminates both the challenges faced by memoirists and the delicate nature of the balance of trust between the author and audience, which the panelists—Portland State University professor and author Paul Collins, Lewis & Clark College professor Catherine Loverti, and author Kevin Sampsell—discussed in their lively, wide-ranging panel. A running thread in the conversation was expectations: What does an audience expect from a memoir, the panelists asked, and how can those expectations be met without compromising personal truth?
A memoir undergoes three translations—from memory to writing, from writing to narrative, and from narrative to edited and published product—and this process can be full of pitfalls. The panel discussed the process of remembering accurately and honestly. Collins recommended keeping a journal, and Sampsell urged potential memoirists to focus on their personal relationship to an event instead of trying to present a universal experience. “It’s up to the writer,” he said, “to have some sort of ownership of an experience.” Loverti, in a particularly interesting aside, explored the difference between English and foreign-language memoirs on a linguistic level. She mentioned subjunctive forms in the German and Turkish languages that imply uncertainty and doubt, and suggested, semi-seriously, that this would be an appropriate tense for writers of memoir.
The panel also discussed the ethics of “narrativization” in memoir, specifically the thorny issue of dialogue. Dialogue, when presented in direct quotes, typically signals a sort of “transcription” to the reader, which is unlikely in a narrative based on the flawed process of recollection. The panelists questioned if the memoir reader implicitly understands these issues of dialogue and recollection, then explored whether the author can balance authenticity with the demands of narrative. Sampsell mentioned that he didn’t begin to reproduce dialogue in his memoir until he was describing his twenties, the age at which he began to trust his recollections more firmly. The panel also noted the difficulty of molding a narrative arc from one’s own life events, particularly when attempting to create a feeling of “resolution” for the reader.
The discussion closed with a conversation about the popularity of memoir. Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club was cited as a tipping point in the genre, proving that beautifully told stories about relatively ordinary people could be wildly successful. Memoir was no longer for celebrities or people who had experienced extraordinary things. An explosion of diverse memoir forms and styles brought energy to the genre, and once-unlikely sources, such as poets, contributed new ways of writing and recollecting to the form. Many audience members at the panel expressed interest in writing their own memoirs, and the panelists were encouraging. Collins had this advice for them, and offered it to all potential memoirists: “If things are changing in an unexpected way, write it down.”

Write to Publish Recap

By Kait Heacock
This year’s Write to Publish conference, our fourth, marked a great success for Ooligan Press. Not only did we make money (always a plus), we also introduced many new people to our student staffed publishing house, and more importantly, we helped bring writers, readers, and publishers together. Fresh off the success of our first Transmit Culture lecture series, we continued our work toward demystifying the publishing industry with an all-day conference that featured readings, panel discussions, and workshops.
 Lidia Yuknavitch on a panel
The day’s theme was “Write What You Know” and focused on non-fiction in its many forms, from travel writing and memoir, to journalism and biography. Writers Lidia Yuknavitch, Floyd Skloot, Kevin Sampsell, Ooligan Press’s own Sean Davis, and many more writers explored what it means to write from personal experience. The panels were lively as industry professionals discussed such topics as ethics in journalism and how to sell a travel writing piece.
Per and student
In the classroom publishing panel discussion, Director of Publishing, Per Henningsgaard, discussed the role he feels publishing plays in education, noting that it can be used to “teach anything.” Former Director of Publishing and Ooligan Press founder, Dennis Stovall, believes publishing education helps empower students by giving them an outlet for their writing. He now volunteers with Roosevelt High School students at their own student staffed press. Some of the Roosevelt students appeared on the classroom publishing panel to discuss their own publishing ambitions, which includes publishing their own book later this year.
Journalism panel
In the morning workshop “History and Biography: Forward Through the Past,” Michael McGregor, the current MFA Director, PSU professor, and a writer himself, said that the writing you should be working on now is “whatever you’re obsessed with.” For all those writers who attended this year’s Write to Publish, we hope that whatever your next project is, you find the best avenue for writing it. Hopefully, this year’s Write to Publish conference helped make that path a little clearer.