In this first installment of Writing The Ellipsis writer César Díaz explores a memoirist’s struggle between having a unique artistic vision while adhering to factual truth. Should one have to? And what is the reader’s role in all of this?
“Write your truth and the reader gotta figure it out.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates
Since memoir is itself a narrative art, one that relies on the shaping of the memoirists’ vantage point to show a distinct experience, then the challenge the memoirist faces is to figure out a way to have a reader’s overall trust. The construction of narrative out of one’s past, the creation of characters out of people one knows, their placement in a reimagined world, is as Michael Ondaatje refers to as an “improvisation” that contains elements of “history, fantasy, [and] fact” and thus an unreliable form. The argument that often comes up when discussing memoir and memory, its allegiance to the facts and truth, shouldn’t be about what’s factual (true) and fictionalized (untrue), but an argument about the readers’ suspension of disbelief. That’s the fiction writer’s largest task, to craft a story out of nothing and demand that readers give in. But this is our task too! Yet, the memoirist grapples with having an artistic vision and a presumed obligation to truth. Like the literary essay, the memoir not only attempts self-inquiry but also seeks a deeper meaning within a lived experience. This meaning remains selective no matter how much fact is used, therefore rendering it nearly impossible to adhere to a singular truth. This is why the memoirist must craft their own truth with an authentic honest voice and trust that readers give in to the journey.
By “crafting,” I mean that the memoirist actively manipulates past experiences, displaying them for a reader in ways that shows the author has willingly sought a deeper significance. Most readers are willing to accept an author’s intent as long as they don’t feel slighted or duped. Readers of memoirs come to them for a great story, but also seek to understand the author’s sensibility by tracking how they arrived at their truth. But as an aspiring memoirist, how does one balance honoring truth while incorporating one’s inventive narrative and still engaging a readers’ belief?
When I first began to write the very first iteration of my family’s story in graduate school, my workshop mates likened what I wrote to a sort of “myth-making,” where my life as a migrant farm-working child was elevated as a method for detaching myself from an overall reality. Since I lived inside books and in my head, my childhood perspective that told the story wasn’t actual but an imagined reality assumed in order to impart a way of life rarely shared in literature. My workshop readers never questioned my truth or its basis in an authentic reality. This shocked me because I felt what I had written was almost entirely out of improvisation that felt like fiction to me. In the writing of the narrative, I never bothered to check details with my family or check that it held to some verifiable truth. What I understood as I wrote was that my story existed within me. The memories were how I remembered them, yet I felt ashamed and confused. They were my stories and my truth after all and for me that was enough. But once it became public, despite that it was only shared within the confines of a writing workshop, I was struck with dread. I felt so indebted to upholding the truth that I felt like a hack. This anxiety struck me to the point that I stopped writing in fear that the nonfiction police were out to get me.
Years later, as I returned to complete my memoir, I felt the duty to build a narrative out of my childhood experiences that was cemented on solid fact. I sat my parents down one summer afternoon and drilled them with questions, many of which were meant to help gain a larger perspective on the situations and circumstances that I remembered as a child. What I discovered was that everything I was brought up in understanding about myself and my brothers, my mother and father, and how we elected to follow the migrant circuit across United States for the first twelve years of my life—all of it was wrong. Then when I approached my brothers, both who were far older than me at the time, with my findings, their take on what they recalled led me to more confusion. All of a sudden that life story I had been telling myself since I was a kid, that made me who I am now, was somehow now fractured and flawed.
I found myself at another impasse, but this time I embraced Ondaatje’s idea of a constructed self, one that told a narrative through improvisation, relying on the things that struck with me throughout my childhood: my imagination, the migrant fields, and books. If my memoir embraces its unreliable form, then the way I get closer to charting my personal history of how it felt for me at the time was to write it as imperfectly authentic as I could. Even if it means that my singular truth is one that recedes and melts away. Not a lie, but an alternate take. But are readers willing to accept this imagined reality?
One of the first things I wrote addressed this very impasse:
“I wonder is imagination not apt for memoir? Can [memoirists] use imagination as a way to chart experience? I did so as a child and find now doing so again. Was the alternate reality I had in my mind not valid, even when I lived and understood the world through it? Then, these pages, my words, story and life is my attempt at fusing those selves: imagination boy, the migrant boy, and later on in childhood, the scholarship boy.”Recently, Vivian Gornick discussed the legitimacy of the memoir as an artful form that “must be composed” to deliver on narrative drive rather than factuality. Gornick sees the memoirist as having full responsibility of shaping their experience in any way as long as the author’s intent remains genuine and everything isn’t made up. She calls on us to acknowledge the memoir as containing this crucial element. She further suggests that this genre is in need of an “educated readership,” one that understands that the author is the narrator while excitedly and willingly giving in to the world and perspective the way readers of novels do. The key is for memoirists to free themselves from that obligation to a singular truth and embrace the genre as the form that is dependent on the author’s artistic vision to arrive at a personal truth.
Thus far, changing this mindset in myself has set me free, to speculate within my imagined spaces, to find meaning within my three selves, to explore that fractured life experience, arriving somewhere between personal history, imagination, and fact. Unreliable, yes, but as the poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez once said, “[Truth in memory] has become more real—no, it is not truth, it is experience—human, imperfect, and beautiful.”
César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. His essays and other think pieces have been published in Guernica and Essay Daily, where he is now a featured columnist. He is also writing a memoir about his experiences as migrant farm worker in the 1980s.