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.”