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Memoir writing revisited

Last Sunday night, right after I completed my blog post on memoirs, this report about Greg Mortenson appeared on 60 Minutes.  Once again, an example of memoir writing gone very, very wrong.

Here is an author (in this case a philanthropist who raises money for an important cause and who apparently takes advantage of his contributors) who has allegedly fictionalized his life experiences.  As was the case in the James Frey scandal, this not only hurts the author, his publisher and his readers but also everyone who might want to write a memoir.  In my opinion it is morally and ethically reprehensible and totally unacceptable.

To respond to a question I was asked regarding last week’s entry, and which is particularly relevant in light of these new disclosures, memoirs are meant to be true stories about the author who is writing them.  Except in rare instances, they should not be written anonymously and never “fictionalized” in any way.  Because of the James Freys and Greg Mortensons of this world, every memoirist is under closer scrutiny by publishers.

Good, effective memoir writing is a responsibility—of the author and of the publisher.  Here’s hoping Greg Mortenson’s “story” won’t be repeated any time soon.

4 Responses to Memoir writing revisited

  1. It’s interesting that the post entitled “Don’t Be a Moron” already has 4 comments, and the one entitled “Memoir writing revisited” has none, as yet – well, this one – I think the scary word in there is “responsibility” – it’s easier to “not be a moron,” than it is to be “responsible,” I guess.

    In the earlier memoir post, someone had mentioned a specific creative writing program, and asked about changing the names of people they might portray in a less than flattering light – I would be interested in a fictionalized account of that, or straight fiction, having been in such a program myself…but I guess the assumption is, a “real” “true” “authentic” memoir will have better sales…hence the pressure to have a memoir filled with larger-than-life events, that never actually occurred…

    I think a better writer would be able to take the not-so-flashy truth, and render it in a way that makes it interesting…I read a bit more about the Three Cups of Tea controversy, Laura Miller at Salon, and then Nathan Bransford had a link to Jessa Crispin’s critique of Miller’s piece.

    On well, I’m starting to ramble. Don’t want to be a moron. I’ll stop now.

  2. Laura says:

    Thanks for the info! So for the reasons you outlined, does that mean publishers aren’t as likely to publish memoirs written under pseudonyms? What about sensitive situations — say, the writer’s religion/cultural community would frown on him openly discussing such details? Again, I’m not a memoirist…but I find all of this fascinating.

    • Laura,

      Wouldn’t that be an expose then, rather than a memoir? Is an expose considered a form of memoir? I’m thinking also of a whistleblower – someone who exposes wrongdoing at a company, for instance – I mean, what they write needs to be true, but maybe their sources don’t need to be named? I can’t remember his real name, but the person who was “Deep Throat” in the Watergate scandal, their identity wasn’t revealed until a couple decades later, I believe. Yes, I’m being a bit slow (it is before noon, after all), and not googling things to be more exact.

      *not claiming “expose” is any sort of genre, the way memoir is…just that the way witnesses and sources are handled, might be a little different…not to mislead or lie, but really, to protect people…

      • Laura says:

        I wasn’t thinking of an expose, really, but rather someone who is concerned about her community/family reaction (from a religious perspective, etc.) to her own life story, which drives her to write under a pen name and alter some details in an effort to keep her identity under wraps — at least to the extent that it won’t be immediately obvious on the surface that she wrote the book. (This would not involve making up events that didn’t happen, twisting reality, or other crimes against truth-telling.)

        In case you can’t tell, I am thinking of a specific case, but since it’s not me and the person vales anonymity, I’m not able to provide more details. So unfortunately, my explanation probably isn’t very helpful. :)

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