Friday, February 6, 2015

Memory is Unreliable, But People Shouldn’t Be: What Brian Williams et al. Means For Non-Fiction

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Brian Williams conflates things that happened to him. The James Frey memoir A Million Little Pieces sent waves of fear into publishing houses across the country. Lena Dunham’s book turned a Republican named Barry into the same person as a rapist. What is it about these three stories that is so disturbing?

It's not only that we feel lied to. It's that the person telling the story pulled one over on us and at least partly got away with it. We believed them and now we stand here, feeling stupid for having been moved by the story in the first place. The job of any storyteller is to move the audience. However, it is not the job of a non-fiction storyteller to alter the story so that an otherwise uninteresting story now has sizzle, pathos or some other quality. The viewer and the reader are at a disadvantage. The quality of their emotional response and the validity of their experience comes into question. In short, we've been made to feel something that wasn’t real.
As a creative non-fiction writer, I am constantly dogged by the unreliability of my memory and by it’s astounding clarity. When I interview people, often to make sure I’m not “misremembering”, I often here things like, “But you were so young… I didn’t remember that until you said it…Yes, it was just like that.” Other times, I’m sure I have something wrong as soon as I’ve written it but I’m not sure the detail being wrong takes anything away from the emotional truth I am attempting to convey.

Memory is fickle. The word memory comes from the Greek myths. Mnemosyne was a Titan. She was the daughter of Uranus and Gaia and the mother of the muses. All science and art come from memory. But memories, like mothers, are imperfect. They try their best to convey the truth as our hearts and minds need them conveyed at the time. They hide from us when we need to forget.
So why the fuss? The fuss is because we expect truth from “true stories.” Moreover, the contract with the reader and viewer of non-fiction implies that the reporter and author are pulling back the curtain on something real. To discover otherwise is to discover that we are on the receiving end of a breached contract. In breaking the contract with the audience, the purveyors of memory manipulations destroy not only their own credibility but that of the genre as well. As a great writer said, “If you have to make it up, write fiction.”