Perceptions of the past

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

― John Lennon


“What are you writing now?” He asked me from across the folding table.

“It’s a memoir,” As soon as the words came tumbling out of my mouth, I realized how loaded they were.

I was standing across from James Frey. They guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces and got publicly slammed by Oprah when the world discovered that much of his memoir was fabricated.

He laughed and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses.

“Oh God, just….just…call it fiction. Please.”

I didn’t know I was going to be having that conversation with James Frey last week when I went to Book Expo America in New York. I was expecting to have a couple of meetings with publishers, score some free advance copies of books, see some writer friends and have my agent pick up the tab for dinner. I wasn’t expecting to be sent into a philosophical quandary about the nature of truth.

There are several ways you can come down on The James Frey Thing. Some people think he’s a liar scumbag. Some people think he was backed into a corner by his publisher and forced to call his book a memoir when he always intended it to be fictional. Some people think he wrote something beautiful and poignant regardless of its accuracy.

But let’s set aside our desperate urge to pass judgment for a moment – let’s not defend or condemn his actions. Because either way, there are a few things that are pretty clear cut about The James Frey Thing.

  • He wrote a book that resonated with many people
  • He made all non-fiction writers think about their own relationship to reality
  • And he made everyone a little scared of Oprah

I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on reality. I also think most people think that about themselves.

In my book and my blog, I write stories about my life. I believe them to be true. It also occurs to me that there might be people who read what I write and have a completely different recollection of that event.

I’ve told the story a million times about how I became an actor. I was in a mall with my parents when I was three years old and a man approached us and wanted me to be in a commercial his company was casting. Recently, I was telling the story on a radio show and later my mom called me to say it was in a market, not a mall. But I always thought it was a mall. When I think about it, I see fluorescent lighting and a food court — not an open, breezy market with baskets of colorful fruit and glassy-eyed fish lying on piles of ice. But apparently, I’ve just filled in the details where my memory has faltered.

Memory is a slippery thing – it picks and chooses the moments it wants to cling to and it changes rooms and conversations and intonations. It makes you braver or funnier or more awkward than you actually were.

Of course, there are details that are (or should be) concrete. I’m not recommending you claim you had a root canal without anesthetic if you didn’t. But what is interesting and important about telling our stories is the emotion and deeper meaning that we bring to it. And that belongs to the storyteller alone. We own it. There are so many ways of seeing the world and understanding the consequences, but our perception of reality takes precedence when we get brave enough to open up and tell our story.

What really matters when reflecting back is – what came from that experience? Was there joy or pain? What was learned? Where did it lead? How can it help someone else and do something good?

That’s what our memories are really for.

Well, that –  plus the glorious feeling of humiliation that we actually used to wear fringed denim vests.

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15 Replies to “Perceptions of the past”

  1. Writing about yourself is a tricky enterprise to be sure. I think I would preface a memoir with the phrase we used when I worked at the Post Office: “Close enough for government work.”

  2. Everyone should be afraid of Oprah. Very afraid. lol The brain does play tricks and will fill in memory. One reason eye witnesses always vary in accounts is because they interpret the same event differently. Still, what Frey did was wrong because it involved deception. When the core about an event or person is willfully misrepresented then you’ve crossed the line. Having worked on a memoir myself, i know there is temptation but oddly enough if you stick to the facts, you’ll be surprised how little they need to be embellished. Keep it true.

    1. It is incredible to see how consistently unreliable eyewitnesses are. And I agree – I usually feel like real life is more unbelievable than fiction…

  3. Hello Lisa. Great thoughts you’ve expressed. I’ve been reading your work for several months though this is my first response. As a writer who earns his living from his prose for several years now, I’m often faced with what I call the exaduration/fabrication quandary. It would be so much simpler if there were a fictional litmus test, but what I’ve come to know better than anything else after almost 43 years on this planet is that the line between fact and fiction is most often mottled and gray, rather than sleek, black and well defined. As writers, this is a double edged sword, as Mr Frey has so painfully become aware. It grants us a tremendous amount of literary license to expound, exadurated, and mottle the details of many events without boldface lying about the event ls themselves. And therein I believe lays te difference. It is but literary license to embellish or swashbuckle certain details describing a particular event or occurrence. However, when we fabricate entire occurrences, and not just embellish or exadurate it’s details, now we are venturing into an entirely new realm. No longer can we claim subpar memory for detail and intricacies, but now we have painted ourselves into the proverbial corner of either having fabricated an entire event or of implanting ourselves within the action of a particular event when in reality we played no role in the transpiring events.

    Of course, this is just my opinion, but I feel it’s an educated one, crafted after several years of often painful life experience.

    1. I agree with you – I think it’s so important to acknowledge those grey areas in life that are difficult to define. Thanks so much for reading and for the thoughtful comment.

  4. I’ve tried to write stories about my life, but it honestly scares me, because I usually come across as being really bitchy, and complaining a lot. I probably won’t do a memoir. I don’t think that enough has happened in my life that would resonate with a lot of people.
    I remember being in college, majoring in Creative Writing, when the James Frey thing came out. My teacher was in the group that wanted to crucify him for it, whereas, I’m of the camp of, “What he wrote resonated, why can’t we let it lie?” Then she talked about changing up genres to suit our writerly needs, which led into a larger conversation about changing everything to suit our needs. If memory serves, the example she used was, “I’m hungry for an apple, but all I have are bananas. Today, this (banana) is an apple.”
    Yeah, she pretty much lost me, and I decided it wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on.

    1. I don’t really get what your teacher was taking about either…good thing I’ve never taken a creative writing class, I guess. By the way, I’m loving the phrase “the hill I wanted to die on.” It’s morbid and fabulous.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. I don’t know about Oprah’s scathing rant and am not really interested in finding out what she said. I am interested to find out more about James Frey though.

    I read the other day that our memories are not from the moment, they are from the last time we remembered the event. It makes sense that they degrade and we fill in bits. I can only recall certain toys I had as a pre-5 year old so you do have a remarkable capacity to recall such events at the age of 3. That said, if you retell the story often enough then I expect that reinforces the whole memory process.

    1. If you are interested in checking out Frey’s work – I LOVED Bright Shiny Morning. Thanks for reading my blog – so glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Can I lie about a root canal without anesthetic if I say I cried like a little girl through the whole thing?

    Truth is I’ve never had a root canal, anesthetic or no. But I have had my wisdom teeth removed. Without anesthetic.


    1. I was awake when I had my wisdom teeth pulled, just had a local painkiller. It was pretty gross. The nurse was kind enough to wipe all the blood off my face before I wandered back into the waiting room to find my boyfriend. I think there is a reason that you are usually asleep for medical procedures.

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