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Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction?

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By Irene Waters

Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?

For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.

There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.

Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.

We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.

Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.

When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.

If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.


45 Comments

  1. denmaniacs4 says:

    I rarely write “memoir.” What I find myself doing quite often is taking bits and pieces of my memory and infusing it with a more punctuating prose, or poesy. Though I believe I am a truth teller, I am also a revisionist…hopefully retaining strong elements of “truth” whilst coupling the whole rigmarole with an interesting narrative.

    Nevertheless, I do love others truer memoirs.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. […] via Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? — Carrot Ranch Literary Community […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am not sure what will come of this prompt but something. (Eventually, busy weekend) This is a thought provoking series. And bicycles! I can remember and go on at length about every single bike I have known and owned since the big red trike when I was four. The most I ever had in possession at one time was seven (or maybe eight). I have trimmed the stable to 5 now, not including the trikkes (Not a typo, google it) and the unicycle. (That idea not going so well; yet)

    Liked by 6 people

    • I remember you finding your unicycle at the tip. Perhaps its early days yet. You sound as though you are a committed rider – I’d love to know what prompted the multiple bikes in the stable. You must have a good core D. if you ride those trikkes. I had to google it as suggested but I have seen them ridden here – I have always looked in admiration of the girls figures as they passed.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      If you ever want to travel with any of your stable I have suggestions, D.! There are muddy trails down Brockaway Mountain over Copper Harbor and wilderness bike trails in Zion. I prefer horses and Jeeps, but recall fond memories of bikes, too. A unicycle! I rode one — once. That wheel took off behind me and my face met the pavement. May you have more successful yets in your future.

      Like

  4. Hi, Irene, the identity in a memoir is a thought-provoking issue. In our poetry class yesterday, we read our poems entitled “I Am From…” Different member wrote from different angles. Some wrote about the locations they have been since birth. Some wrote about the family tradition they were brought up and transitioning to their own tradition in the present. Some wrote about the social changes they’ve been through. Some wrote about the emphasis of the church from past to present.

    It was so interesting that one member recommended that we polish our “I Am From…” and compile them as our anthology.

    One of my former supervisors said, after her dad retired, he was so depressed and withdrawn because he felt like he lost his identity. He was proud of what he did when working. He associated his talent and mental capacity as his identity. When he stayed home, he felt like being nobody.

    As you mentioned, the reader may like the identity of the memoirist in the first book. When the memoirist goes through changes and has a different perception of his/her journey, the readers may not follow the change of image.

    On June 5, 2004, President Ronald Reagan died after having suffered from 10 year’s Alzheimer’s disease. He had a seven-day state funeral from California to Washington D.C. His casket was carried by a horse-drawn hearse. That was the only state funeral I have seen in my lifetime. I bet this would be a big part of Reagan’s offsprings memoirs.

    Liked by 6 people

    • That sounds like a great idea to make them into an anthology. We see all those different angles with the flash prompt each week. It is one thing that I love about tackling these types of prompts – 99 words or I am from _ is seeing the creative ways that people approach the subject. Some from totally left field. I’d say those stories are well worth reading.

      I think a lot of retired people, men in particular, miss being able to say I am ….. It is the same that a lot of women used to be seen as their husband’s appendage and although some protested it others saw it as valuable. I personally think these kinds of thing give us a traceable identity but do little for who we really are.

      Yes it is a real problem for those who write sequel memoirs and has to be taken into account when it comes to marketing.

      Such a hard illness Alzheimer’s for both sufferer and those that love the person. I’m sure Reagan was no different – just shows that we can be so far removed and yet it doesn’t isolate us from the human experiences. I wonder if Reagan’s children will write a memoir. Certainly there have been biographies written.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      My favorite part of the weekly challenge is bringing together the diverse collection from such diverse perspectives. I can imagine how powerful a collection based on transitions could be. Identity is something that evolves, but for many people, it’s been static — through a long-held job, role or belief. When circumstances change it can be hard for someone who is not used to change to adapt. I like evolving, pushing into discovering who I am in the world.

      Wow — I’ve never seen a state funeral. That must have been a memorable sight. I do think two of Ronald Reagan’s children wrote memoirs. Something to look up!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Charli, It’s good that you like to evolve and discover your full potential.
        When I was in Hong Kong, I had no problem with jobs. Hong Kong is a small world, I was recruited for the three jobs before coming to the US ages ago.
        In the US system, seniority, retirement benefits, and other factors don’t encourage people to leave their jobs. After a person teaches in a school district for more than 15 years, it’s hard to even move to another district because some districts only give up to 10 years credit as local retirement benefit. I ended up staying in the same district for 25 years. Well, at least I taught for 15 years and was administrator for 10, so I kind of pushed myself a little.

        Like

  5. […] Another post I have written for Carrot Ranch on Memoir. via Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting post as ever, Irene, and provoked some useful thoughts for me in anticipation of my forthcoming short story anthology of stories about identity.
    I must ask – perhaps repeating myself from previous conversations – about your statement that memoir gives us our identity. Do you mean that without memoir we don’t have an identity or is it that memoir is one of the things that gives us identity? Or is your concept of memoir much wider than creative non-fiction to embrace any of the stories we tell about ourselves and are told about us?
    I can agree that our stories help us identify who we are. But which comes first, the identity or the story about it? I think about it as an interactive process between identity and story which is continually evolving.
    And what’s your view on the stories we don’t tell? In my opinion, the stories we tell only to ourselves are part of who we are. Then I believe there are the unconscious stories, scripts etc that we don’t articulate even to ourselves, but nevertheless impact on both our behaviour and how we think about ourselves.
    It’s fascinating also how those false memories are shaped by and further shape our identities. Sometimes people develop a false self of false identity which is nevertheless an honest view of themselves at that particular point in time. This might arise through stories imposed by others and/or a “real” self that feels too fragile, especially for those with marginalised identities.
    Lots to psychologise and philosophise about but for writers, of memoir or fiction, it all comes down to telling the stories that people will want to read.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi Anne, I lost my initial reply so hopefully this one will make it. Thank you for reading again and I’m glad you found it interesting. You, as usual, have made me think.
      Memoir is one of the things which gives us identity. We have our researchable identity available to all via birth certificates, newspaper articles, voting registers etc. This part of identity we never lose as we never lose our race, nationality etc. This to me is the sterile part of identity. The other part is how others see us and this is determined by the stories we tell of ourselves and how our actions are seen. My concept of memoir is much broader than just the literary genre. This may be right or wrong but nowadays memoir not only refers to the written word but to aural stories. I take it to include stories you tell to friends and other people although it could be argued that these should be termed life stories rather than memoir. I see little difference in the definition. I follow a philosophy that telling these stories are as important as the maintenance of pH, and temperature. They are fundamental to being human and having an identity. Absolutely these stories evolve and change over time. I believe that we also stop telling stories as we ourselves change over time. The stories of our teens may now be embarrassing to admit to, may put us in a light that would not make us look good and make not only others think less of us but also ourselves. This may be conscious or unconscious but I think we all do it.
      The stories that we don’t tell I believe are because we don’t want these stories to define us as people. Whether we tell them or not they will have contributed to our present day character and will have impacted on the stories we do tell because they have had a part in making us who we are. Psychological traumas and untold stories is another subject and often telling these stories even to the self, or counsellor will have a positive impact. Paul John Eakin wrote “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others
      as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”
      I have sometimes fantasised about making a fictional life for myself. I could give myself children and grandchildren and be able to join in an ever enlarging part of the lives of those around me. Sometimes I have been tempted to do it. I don’t only because I believe in truth and honesty. It would be so easy to be someone that you aren’t and you would assume that identity by the stories you tell.
      False memories are much more common that we think. Humans are hardwired for story and where there are gaps we fill them unknowningly with what is the most probable scenario. Oliver Sachs tells of a memory he had during the war. The incident happened. He described it perfectly. The problem was that he was not in London at the time it happened. He honestly believed he was. He believed he was part of it and no physical proof could take away his memories. They were true to him and would definitely have had an impact on him as a person.
      You are right Anne. It does all come down to writing the stories that people want to read.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Annecdotist says:

        Thanks for clarifying, Irene. Interesting that you take such a wide interpretation for memoir and I’m not sure why that would be. Also I think we differ – and will continue to do so – on the stories we don’t share. I totally accept my private stories as part of who I am – although this was a difficult place to get to – and my experience of sharing it, apart from with a therapist, actually weakens that.

        Liked by 4 people

      • I totally agree Anne that there are stories that should never be told, some that should be told only to select people and only a small number that should be made public. All our stories make up the person that we are whether we tell them or not.
        I take such a wide view I guess because the definition of memoir is telling well, (by the use of fiction techniques) the memory of a part of one’s life truthfully. Storytelling I believe is something that we all do. Most do it aurally. On our radio one of the most popular programmes is compered by Richard Fidler and features aural memoir.
        But this is all theory and when it boils down to it, writing memoir or fiction is done because you believe you have a story to tell and we all hope we do it well whatever the genre.

        Liked by 5 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Anne, and Irene, your discussion has me thinking about the power of stories in our lives. I often use the phrase “we are hardwired for stories” when I teach about crafting brand stories. Of course, being a story-teller, stories feel like a part of my DNA. Then there are the narratives we tell ourselves, the stories that shape who we are, or who we think we are. But which comes first? Who we think we are or what narrative we use to describe ourselves and our experiences? Writing, in general, is an act of self-discovery whether memoir or fiction. I don’t think you can write deep and not encounter self. It feels like seeking. Which reminds me of a certain story structure… Anne and I have been discussing and pondering the hero’s journey. I think it could be better labeled the journey of self. If we are discovering, do the stories help us with discovery or cover up what we don’t want to include? What gives us identify — the stories we tell or hide? So much to consider.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I first started writing, Irene, it was my Sir Choc books which are pure fantasy. I think Sir Choc and Lady Sweet live in the world children would like to live in where everyone is nice, every problem is happily resolved and you can eat anything. I moved on to Silly Willy which has a lot of memoir in it and then I started writing my Mom’s memoir. From that I have leaped to a YA ghost story. I do believe there is a lot of me [and my family] in all my writing. A lot of what features there is influenced by what I like and what I believe in. A great post.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Jules says:

    I wonder does memoir become diluted when we take and change the names to protect the innocent in a fiction piece. There are so many ‘fiction’ pieces that have ‘flashes’ of truth. But because those pieces are not claimed as memoir are they any less valuable to the person who wrote them?

    Even bits of poetic verse have bits of memoir when recalling even the briefest of moments. Like describing who raided the bird feeder on a particular spring morning.

    It is very interesting that we can make false memories. How often have we been told by other family members that an incident that we believe happened one way, they claim happened differently or even not at all.

    How we perceive ourselves by how others define us is also interesting. The child who is told they are cute or won’t amount to much… (for what ever reasons) sometimes fills that outcome because they have only ever seen themselves in that light. So when they do change or brake the mold – and become the swan, they deserve what ever accolades that are bestowed.

    I’ll have to think about bikes… as I didn’t learn to ride until I was a teenager.
    And didn’t own one until an adult…

    Liked by 3 people

    • I always swore that I would never change names of people in memoir as it seems a sign of disrespect to me. Most people like being mentioned however I have come to realise that if you can’t ask the person then perhaps it is better to change their name. For me these characters are usually minor players in the memoir but rather than find them all (probably impossible) it is easier to change their name.
      Are they less valuable to the writer – I think they are but there are probably others that would argue that point. I think we all use what we know, those around us and ourselves when we write other than memoir but these are usually very different to what we would write as memoir. They do however make our work ring true.
      We all bring our own world views to our memories and as such I don’t think that any event is ever seen the same way by those observing it. If eg witnesses to a car accident – if they have the same story it is assumed that they have colluded on the story to be told. False memories are more remembering an event as real but in reality the event either happened and you weren’t present or the event never happened at all. A lot of memory is made up as we are hardwired for story and we will fill the gaps with a realistic most probable scenario.
      Yes we tend to fulfil prophecies and lucky for some that they can break away.
      Any bike memories welcome. I didn’t have a lot to do with bikes as a child either.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Irene and Jules, pitching in here about the issue of changing names. Like you Irene, I also swore I wouldn’t change any names, and like you also Jules, I felt that by doing so, diluted their character. The main characters have their real names, but there are some I felt I needed to change because my story goes a long way back and those people I have either not had any contact with for over 30 years, don’t know where they live or even if they are still alive. The main characters I have kept the same. But using made up names stifled my writing. So I went back to their real names and will change them when it’s finished, and use a disclaimer. Is that okay to do Irene? I don’t know another way around it…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I wouldn’t have thought of the names making such a difference, but I can see now that you’ve explained how it’s factored into your writing process, Sherri. Good question.

        Like

    • Charli Mills says:

      Interesting thoughts, Jules. I prefer the freedom of fiction to build on a memory or something I encountered. It’s like seeing the external but following it to an internal process. I think people might have a hard time feeling comfortable with imagination — is it untrue or somehow less than a memory? I liked what Bill pointed out in his comment about being a truth seeker. He does that through fiction. And sometimes memory can only go so far as a personal perspective.

      Irene’s explanation of false memories actually helps me understand what the Hub is doing where he has gaps in his memory — he fills in with what seems likely. It’s unsettling to me because I know some of these memories are definitely false, but he feels they aren’t and then I begin to doubt myself. Some people are in denial though. I wonder if strong denial can create false memories?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jules says:

        You remind me of the book ‘Sybil’ – while that dealt with a person with multiple personalities it wasn’t until the person ‘Sybil’ actually accepted some of the other ‘selves’ that she was able to be more ‘whole’ – as some of the memories were buried deep in the splits for safety. But again, who is to say which of those selves had the truest or most (if any) made up memories in order for the ‘body’ to survive? So maybe it is possible for a person who wants to forget to create a false memory in order for self preservation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Shakespeare once wrote about the tangled webs we weave — maybe he meant memories more than lives and lies!

        Like

  9. You really made me think with this post. For many years, I couldn’t talk at all about myself because the history was so painful that it frightened me. When finally confronted it, I found it changed, not because of the incidents, but because of my understanding of the incidents and the history that was their inception.

    You mention at the very end of this article how those with dementia have lost their memories. My mother suffered Alzheimer’s disease the last 18 years of her life. I watched in dismay and terror as part of her dissloved until none of her memories remained. Since she couldn’t remember anything or anyone from her past, she was unable to anticipate any kind of future. Alezheimer’s is awful on so many levels but it’s the disappearance of memory that is most horrible to witness. My mom’s final memoir could be no more than the pain or hunger or happiness she felt at the moment, gone just seconds later.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Jennie says:

    I am in the process of writing a memoir on my blog, but I have made it specific to one area, quilting over the years in my classroom. I thought this would simply be a story with a few chapters, but it has become far more. A memoir dives deep into your heart, or soul. Perhaps a piece of advice for others would be to narrow the focus initially so the writing can do the expanding. Make sense? I’m writing part 5, and it keeps growing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Jennie, I love your description of your memoir as “quilting over the years.” In fiction writing, I like to create a patchwork of scenes to explore and do that deep dive. It makes sense to allow for the writing to grow from a small focal point rather than casting a broad net early on. Thanks for that insight!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jennie says:

        I’m so glad you liked the description, Charli. I think we are on the same wavelength, growing writing from a small focal point. Although, an opening sentence or prologue that casts a big net can pull the reader in- pun intended!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Ha! Cheers to casting the biggest net we can even if we weave it small bit by bit!

        Like

  11. Hi Irene, I wish I had time to comment more on the, as always, great discussion your fascinating memoir post has generated. I had not thought about the different ways we might read the same memorist until now. For instance, I absolutely loved Angelea’s Ashes by McCourt, but not as keen on ‘Tis, strangely. You bring up such an important facet of memoir writing with identity. And I think that is the whole point of memoir: we seek to write the true story as we experienced it and from our unique perspectives and memories, constantly challenged to write the truth of it, whether or not it puts us in a good or bad light. This is the crux of what a memoir should be, to me, setting it apart as the genre it is, and why it can be so difficult to write. We go deeper and deeper and often find that the story we thought we were writing is actually quite different. It is much easier to set up false identities these days with social media. We can portray ourselves in whatever light we choose. We can look great, smile and make jokes, but what really lies behind the photographs? Memoir forces us to look behind the smiles and find the real story. Which of course, is lost so tragically with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But through the written word, the story lives on. Wonderful post Irene, thank you for sharing so generously your knowledge and expertise. I look forward to taking part in ‘Bicycles’ this month! A fun prompt! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Sherri, I think fiction writing, in this sense, is similar. The deeper we go, the more different the story becomes. However, in memoir, that’s probably a whole different experience because the depths belong to one’s memory, but also the processing of those memories. I feel frustrated at the moment with MOD because I feel I lost the story. Much of it has to do with me, that I’ve evolved since I started writing it. I’m not sure how to sort that out other than to keep pushing into it. Thank you for sharing your insights! ❤

      Like

  12. Norah says:

    Interesting post, Irene. I’ll come back to read the discussion later. I was particularly intrigued by this question: As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?

    Liked by 1 person

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