“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.