Let’s get the point out of the way first, then expand on it: memoirs are works of fiction. Specifically, memoirs as artifacts of “truth” or “reality” are neither true nor real. They are constructions founded in subjectivity and the malleability of human memories; and as products of the written word, they are constructed using techniques similar, if not identical, to works of fiction.
At first glance, memoirs seem to hold a place separate from fiction and non-fiction. Memoirs appear to some as the vehicles through which truth, in some sense objective, travels.
Memoirs are strictly subjective, incapable of anything approaching objectivity.
How can I make such an assertion? Without giving a dissertation, I’ll sum up some findings of modern cognitive science: our experiences of everything are products of our brains; our sense of self are products of our brains; what we experience and how we experience it are products of our brains.
Since our experience of any given situation is a product of our brains, it is impossible for us to step outside experience to see things as they actually are. We may attempt to imagine what things might be like, but we can’t say for certainty what things are like—this is the goal of every field of science: to determine with certainty what things are like.
Since we can’t step outside of ourselves to see things as they are, isn’t it possible to view ourselves from a different point of view—a sober middle-aged man, for example, looking back at himself as a drunk in his twenties and seeing his previous self in a more objective light?
Although it’s possible to consider our younger selves and draw conclusions, it’s impossible to do so objectively. When we consider our younger selves we’re experiencing memories in our current state. That is, our current state frames the experience, even altering our memories.
Briefly: memories are not like Blu Rays; you don’t passively watch an exact recording; instead, memories are stored as information—specifically electrical impulses; not every piece of information is retained when a memory is encoded. When we retrieve a memory, we frame this information in our current state. If I recall a happy memory when I’m sad, for example, I might then view that memory as somehow sad of bittersweet.
Since we reconstruct memories every time we recall them, we don’t pack that information away untouched. When we put that memory away, so to speak, we’re actually re-encoding it, therefore saving the newly added information, including emotional information.
So every time we retrieve a memory, we alter it, and we save that altered memory and assume when we recall it again that that is exactly how we experienced that situation when we initially experienced it.
But even our initial experience of a situation is predicated on our sense of self, which is itself a product of our brains—probably evolved to bring coherency and to prioritize the overwhelming amount of information inundating us at any given moment.
Now back to the question of whether or not an older person can look back at his or her younger self in something like an objective light: as you’ve seen above, it is impossible for us to even reflect on our younger selves without integrating our current selves into the reflection.
When a memoirist writes about his or her younger self, the writing actually tells us as much about his or her current self as it does his or her younger self.
It’s possible that it even tells us more about their current selves than it does about their younger selves.
How? Literary technique.
Memoirs appropriate the rules of fiction writing—even non-fiction, such as history, does this.
The key to contemplating memoirs is to emphasis the fact that these are stories. The writer decides on a starting point and an end point, the writer adheres to traditional fictional structures—simply put: beginning, middle, end, with dramatic arcs built into the structure.
How a memoirist chooses to frame a situation within the context of the written word conveys information about the memoirist’s current state.
Literary techniques such as showing without telling can be found in memoirs. We can also find literary techniques borrowed from fiction to write dialogue.
How many people have read a memoir and encountered a scene in which the narrator, at an early age, has a conversation with someone?
This dialogue is, at best, a probable reconstruction. At worst, it’s a device meant to convey information, even if that information does nothing more than to establish the tone of the narrator’s rapport with various people.
These are situations recreated via the written word and, by employing various literary techniques, they’re transformed into “stories.”
So when you consider that experience is a product of our brains, when you consider that even memories are altered by our current selves—by the current self of a memoirist writing about his or her past, for example—since our experience renders everything in a subjective framework, and since literary techniques borrowed from fiction are used to frame situations as “stories,” it’s improbable to assume that a memoir is anything other than a work of fiction colored by rough approximations of situations the memoirist at one point experienced.
For years, I’ve balked at memoirs. But I’ve studied them recently, having read a considerable amount as of this writing, and now I’m in the process of writing one—about my experiences with bipolar disorder and PTSD.
What changed my mind? The above realization, that memoirs are works of fiction colored by situations experienced by a memoirist.
This realization is liberating: by understanding what memoirs are, I now understand how to play with, and manipulate, the form without consciously or blatantly lying.
Bracketing the cognitive science crash course for a minute, if we just consider that memoirs are structured and framed like works of fiction, and if we understand the rules of fiction, then we can develop new ways of writing memoirs.
We can only break the rules if we understand them. Understanding the rules of fiction, understanding literary technique, teaches you how to manipulate or break those rules.
By understanding the rules of the written word and by understanding how experience, the sense of self, and memories work, then we can play with the content and form of memoirs in new and different ways.
That is why I’m currently writing a memoir: to attempt to play with the content and the form. And I encourage anyone who’s considering writing a memoir to do the same. Just don’t consciously lie and create
a James Frey, JT Leroy situation for yourself.