Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You Lie: Fake Memoirs as a sub-genre

snips from The Rumpus


The Heroic Lie: A Brief Inquiry into the Fake Memoir

Steve Almond   ·  April 20th, 2011  
When I was about ten years old, I hit my older brother in the mouth with a baseball bat. We were standing around in a field, hitting pebbles with the bat, and I got him on my backswing. There was a lot of blood.
Although the blow was technically a mistake, I’ve always felt that I was seeking revenge for his bullying. My brother remembers it differently. He was told not to step into the path of my swing, but ignored the warnings.
Memory is not a recording device. It’s the past as filtered through the emotional needs of the present. In this sense, memory can be thought of as a creative act, though, crucially, an unconscious one.
You will have heard, by now, of the curious case of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. As documented by the author Jon Krakauer, among others, Mortenson appears to have falsified vast swaths of his best-selling memoir, including a dramatic abduction by the Taliban.
Over the past decade, the fake memoir has become a genre unto itself. A few years ago, an Oregon writer named Margaret Seltzer wrote a fake memoir called Love and Consequences, about her years running drugs in South Central Los Angeles. Around the same time, Misha Defonseca wrote Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have lived with a pack of wolves, while wandering Europe in search of her parents. Defonseca was not even Jewish.
The list goes on.

Every time one of these memoirs gets debunked, writers and critics debate what constitutes non-fiction. Often, there’s an argument put forward about something called “emotional truth,” which is supposed to provide moral cover for lying.
My definition of creative non-fiction is simple. It is a radically subjective account of events that objectively took place.
The moment you start making up events that you know did not take place, you’re doing another sort of work. It’s called fiction.

Here’s what Margaret Seltzer told The New York Times, when she was confronted about her lies: “…I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”
The italics are mine.
Is she making an excuse for lying? Yeah.
Is she also right? Probably.
Publishers have responded to declining readership by seeking books that include “author survivors,” inspirational figures the marketing people can dangle as interview bait. It’s not enough anymore to offer publishers a nuanced work of imagination. They’re looking for a pitch dramatic enough to resonate within the frantic metabolism of our news cycle.
What makes fake memoirs offensive isn’t that someone has lied to us, but that we consent to being lied to. We lie to ourselves.

Some view the Mortenson affair as another overblown literary scandal, one of those rituals by which the Fourth Estate both makes hay and cleanses its conscience.
I’ll buy that. But it’s part of something larger, too: a radical shift in our relationship to the truth.
Leaders have always lied to their people. The ones who tell the most extravagant lies tend to do the best. What’s changed is our access to the truth, and our corresponding capacity for denial. The case for war in Iraq was built on lies. We all knew this. We all went along.

In a sense, the internet has made us all memoirists. We spend more and more time in front of screens, constructing our identities. Rather than building small communities of friendship in the real world, we seek the adulation – or at least the attention – of a million strangers.
We tell the stories that make us seem heroic, and suppress the ones that reveal our cowardice and cruelty. Our rhetoric becomes more provocative, dismissive. We type things that common decency would forbid us from saying in person.
Our cultural habits of thought and feeling have begun to ape the tabloid news in which we marinade. Mankind has always needed myths. We invent beliefs to protect ourselves from unbearable truths. But I can’t think of an era in which clearly demonstrable lies of self-interest have been so richly rewarded.
I have no problem with David Sedaris goosing up his dialogue with a bit of drollery, as long as he’s making a good faith effort to reconstruct an exchange that actually took place. That’s his license as a humorist.
But writers who purport to be telling painful truths – like politicians speaking on the floor of the Senate – shouldn’t lie. And when they do, they should be held to account.
The problem isn’t that the truth is a slippery concept. The problem is that our cultural reverence for truth has eroded. It’s this erosion that has led us to ignore the scientific evidence of our own peril. It’s what allows an entire political party to subsist on innuendo and lies. And it’s what sends ambitious, insecure people such as Mortenson zooming into self-mythification.
He wanted to be heard. That meant turning away from the quieter, more terrifying province of truth.
When I was ten years old, I smashed my older brother in the mouth with a baseball bat. His memory says it was a mistake. My memory isn’t so sure. I was angry enough to want him dead. But I also worshipped him like a God. The truth isn’t one way or another. It’s not accidental or premeditated. It’s not evil or noble. The truth is I loved Dave but couldn’t make him love me back. That feeling never goes away. The truth is the blood.

The Ef Word*

*parental discretion advised

I've thought about how to bring this up--and on a rainy, gloomy day, why not.

The first time I read the word "fuck" I think I was in middle school. A precocious reader, I first came across it Catcher in the Rye, but never bothered to look it up. I read it again maybe a few months later at Christmas. Dad got a book from Mom and since I'd read all the books given to me for Christmas I picked up his, The Summer of '42, about a group of friends, boys, who have one last summer before going off to World War II. It isn't a summer of innocence. I believe the book was a movie tie-in. One of the boys has a last fling with a neighbor lady who is missing her husband or sex or maybe wants to "help" the young man before he leaves. The plot was a one-night stand, about the time it took to read the book. But what really hit me was the word f--- used not as a strong curse word or boys shooting off their mouths in the schoolyard but as a VERB.

That shocked me.

Then I went downstairs and pointed it out to my dad, saying I think they got this wrong. What I meant was was that I thought it was anachronistic--out of place for time period. You see, I thought kids MY AGE had come up with that word. Well, Dad put me in my place. His generation came up with that word.


Now-a-days you can see it in print fairly common. In Going Bovine by Libba Bray it was everywhere--like spilled milk, flowing thru the pages. In pg-13 movies it's standard dialog--'cause ya know young kids are just punks and can't really talk all proper! I find the ef word mostly a weak devise, non-literary, and inane in its overuse.

But to be fair, I've HAD to use it myself.

When I have, I try to be very thoughtful and judicious. Is it there for a reason, to set a character, to make a pt.? (I mean rarely does it move the plot along, so I'm not giving it that much significance.) It can either stop a reader or pull them forward.

Language is pretty important to me, words are the bones that hold my story up, so I think about them a lot. I let swear words and most words flow when I'm laying down a first draft, but eventually I'll go back and give them all a second look, and 9 times out of 10 the ef word will get edited out. Not always. I said judiciously, not prudiciously.

If there are readers of my blog out there--and there must be a few as I'm getting about 200 hits a month (I use a setting that doesn't track my own views--haha)--can you tell me about your experience first time reading the ef word or as writers how you decide to use/incorporate it into your writing. Thanks!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Easter

Half way decent photo of me taken this weekend in Andersonville in front of a house with tons of bric-a-brac statuary in the front yard. I pretended it was Audrey Neffinger's house.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three Cups of Hooey*

*hoo·ey[hoo-ee]   Informal .
(used to express disapproval or disbelief): Hooey! you know that's not true.
silly or worthless talk, writing, ideas, etc.; nonsense; bunk: That's a lot of hooey and you know it!

1920–25, Americanism ;  origin uncertain

It isn't that I've been so sick that I've JUST NOW picked up on this. No, I've been reading about it for atleast a week, but have found this NPR story puts it down pretty succinctly. It's an industry problem.Really?

NPR link

'Tea' Debacle Reflects The Murky Waters Of Memoirs

April 19, 2011
Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stone Into Schools, poses with Nowseri schoolchildren in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.
Enlarge Central Asia Institute Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stone Into Schools, poses with Nowseri schoolchildren in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.
Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stone Into Schools, poses with Nowseri schoolchildren in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.
Central Asia Institute
Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stone Into Schools, poses with Nowseri schoolchildren in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.

April 19, 2011
The case of philanthropist Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling — but now besieged — memoir Three Cups of Tea, is just the latest in a long line of publishing debacles that are starting to feel like an annual occurrence: the running of the fraudulent memoirist.
First, there was James Frey with his embellished memoir, the Oprah's Book Club selection A Million Little Pieces. Then there was the supposed young male writer "JT Leroy" who turned out to be the invention of a middle-aged woman, Laura Albert. Another writer, Margaret Seltzer, even went on a book tour promoting a completely made up remembrance of her days as a drug runner for gangs in Los Angeles.
Now, thanks to an expose that aired Sunday on CBS' 60 Minutes, it seems that Mortenson has joined the ranks. On Tuesday, he admitted he made mistakes in his memoir, but has vowed to defend himself.
The story of Mortenson's mission to build schools for kids in remote Afghan and Pakistani villages sold more than 4 million copies. It's even required reading for American military there. But on CBS, his story was debunked by everyone from journalist Jon Krakauer to the tribesmen who allegedly kidnapped him.
The obvious question — which Oprah Winfrey posed to Frey on her show — is why didn't Mortenson just write a novel?
According to Ira Silverberg, Leroy's former agent, the answer lies in the publishing industry.
"The biggest problem publishers have is that the fiction category isn't as good as it used to be," Silverberg explains. "In the age of Oprah and celebrity reality television and true tales, everyone wants a spokesperson for some horrible incident or ... tragedy. A lot of writers feel forced into making a memoir of something that might more accurately be called fiction."
Viking, the publisher of Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, is looking into the claims made against the book.
Viking Press
Viking, the publisher of Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, is looking into the claims made against the book.
This trend horrifies acclaimed memoirists like Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club and, most recently, Lit. "It's really obscene," she says. "I spend years writing books and I spend a lot of time with the people that are in them."
Instead of fact-checking, Karr relies on collective memories to ensure her accuracy. "I write the books entirely from memory. I don't do research and then when they're done, I just send [the books] to the people who are in them," she explains.
Her method has its own kind of rigor — she says she has never been accused of anything worse than getting a date wrong — but inaccurate memoirs have enjoyed a gloriously long history, says literary agent Scott Mendel.
"We know from memoirs going back all the way to St. Augustine's Confessions that writers embellish their stories in order to make their point as powerfully as possible," Mendel says.
So why aren't publishing houses more careful, in the way that newspapers and magazines are?
"There's actually a warranty clause where the author is obligated to assert that the facts are true and that there is no fraud being perpetrated on the publishing house," Mendel explains.
Opting for legal clauses, the noble old world of publishing has not yet adapted to a digital age — where fact-checking is sport and results spread smoking gun-style over the Internet.
"I'm always suspect of a memoir where someone becomes a hero," says Karr. She believes that most memoirs that fail under scrutiny reflect their author's outsized narcissism. But she doesn't blame the publishers.
"It's not their job," she says. "If they had to have a fact-checking department like The New Yorker and had to fact-check at that level of detail, they couldn't afford to be in business."
Silverberg agrees, but he thinks a distinction should be drawn between a literary memoir that looks at families or addictions and one like Three Cups of Tea.
"That books stands out as a very unique example," he says. "It's a news-making book, dealing with very specific active, live problems on the ground. It should be treated with a little more vetting than something that is perhaps told in the past."
"This is a guy who is running a nonprofit," Silverberg says, and whose Three Cups of Tea now has him in metaphorical hot water.
I'm taking things easy this morning as I was taken down by a 24-hour flu. Classic. One minute I was perfectly fine, with numerous plans for my Wednesday when BAM! It happened that fast.

It was the kind of sick that while prostrate and writhing you find yourself hallucinating, hearing things not there and conjuring up memories and half-memories. I kept thinking about being on a moving train--did I mention I was nauseous--somewhere in Greece, in a small closet bathroom (train bathrooms are incredibly small and compact). Actually this was my experience in Greece in 2007 where I found myself ill from a water-borne bug. There's nothing worse than traveling while sick, except if its in a foreign country and you're stuck on a train. There was nothing to do, but to keep moving and hope at some point to lay down in a bed.

I think I'm better now after being knocked down and derailed. There is so much on the plate for today and tomorrow to get ready for the busy weekend. At least I'm not planning a lamb cake

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


For memoir, and I've said this in my blog more than once, it really doesn't matter what REALLY happened, what matters is what YOU think happened, because ultimately all people want is a story.

I've been thinking a lot lately about myth and personal myth-making. It could also be called campfire inspiration. When primitive man sat around the campfire did he ask himself--should I tell what really happened or just the juicy parts? Of course, in order to hook his listeners he told about the exciting hunt, the danger, the heroics. He knew that much and he was a Neanderthal. Not to diss Neanderthals too much.

When Bob Dylan suddenly got big, when he made it and people wanted to know all about Bob Dylan and the publicist from Columbia wanted to put out press about him, they interviewed him to get his story. Bob told them exactly what they wanted to hear, because Bob Dylan was a storyteller. From his Chronicles I read that he told them he was orphaned or some such bullcrap and that he was a runaway, etc etc. They ate it up. The truth didn't really matter, not then, and possibly not even now. People want to believe in the myth of Bob Dylan rather than the real man or the musician. Celebrities need to be bigger than life, even if that's not exactly what they want. It's what happens.

So this weekend I was reading a retrospective of the painter Edward Hopper. I love his Cape Cod work. Anyway, there was a small little blip about "Nighthawks"; people always want to know the "real" story behind it. He said it was painted from memory of a diner that sat at a certain corner in New York City during the 1930s - 1940s. Of course, that makes sense. And that it was now demolished. Except someone went back to check it out and learned from census and city records that during that time period at that corner there was NEVER a diner, but a gas station.

Does this fact diminish "Nighthawks" or make us change our minds about a masterpiece?

Not really, because the painting has taken on a life of its own and is now iconic.

it's also rumored that his wife Jo was the model for the red-headed woman, again a good story, which also happens to be true

Monday, April 18, 2011

Laura Miller @ Salon

I've just discovered a columnist I enjoy reading @ Salon--and no, it isn't Annie Lamott, who I wish still wrote for them. Well, I think she does sometimes.

Anyway, Laura Miller wrote a review for Wendy McClure's new book, The Wilder Life--her memoir of wishing she was Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's like she's copped MY own fantasy. I was always playing Little House in Suburbia and wishing I had someone to call Ma and Pa. My own parents didn't cotton to such endearments. In fact they were about as far away from homespun as one can get--as they liked to say, we grew up during the Depression for Godssake! That experience alone gave them the right to consume and the fact that Dad had pulled himself up by the bootstraps--on the GI Bill--meant that all those other schmucks should do the same. They were and still are virulently anti-government--while they have enjoyed the fruits of the "greatest generation."

Anyway! Again back to Laura Miller. Here is a link her review of Wendy's book.Wendy I discovered lives in Oak Park, Illinois. So somewhere I should have run into her in the small literary world of Chicago that I gadabout. Actually I don't because 1. I go to bed at ten o'clock and 2. I don't drink--and always I feel like I have to apologize for that. At writer's conferences I'm the one standing there with ice water with about as much enthusiasm as a cold drink. I lack punch.

Anyway!! I really, really want to get this book. I love the idea of a Laura fan memoir.

Here is Wendy McClure's website.

Also Laura Miller has also written about James Frey, the fake I love to hate--and he has something new out for Easter, a hoax about Jesus. Is there anything this guy does that is genuine? Does he have a radar for doing books that get under people's skin--but STILL MAKES MONEY. That is the biggest irritation of all.

Laura's comments here about that atrocity

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Canyonlands Diary entry

I've been very busy
I had a 2-week artist residency in New Mexico and fell in love with the
it was coincidental then that I'd been planning a trip to Utah with several
women to go backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, so a week after coming
home from the residency we left for Utah
it was a LONG drive, but we were 6 people as far as Denver, where we dropped
off 3 and picked up one girl flying in for the backpacking part and then
drove on to Glenwood Springs, Colorado--all this in ONE day
we had to drive through a snowstorm over the mountains, I credit my friend
Julie with nerves of steel, actually there was very little traffic and we
only found out a week later that the officials closed the highway later
that evening. We got into Glenwood Springs before midnight never even seeing
the mountains we drove through
the next day we drove to Utah, south of Moab and to Canyonlands where after
getting our backcountry permit it still took us 4 hours to find the
trailhead on a road really not meant for a minivan--haha
again we were up so high to start the hike there were snow drifts banked by
the dirt road--and STEEP dropoffs, again Julie was driving
We began hiking down into a canyon where there were still remnants of a
pioneer farmer, his cabin and the frame of his wagon, I have no idea how he
really got down into the canyon as the path we took was winding and rutted
with rocks, we even saw his cattle fence made of pinion pine, a durable wood
like the Joshua tree that grows under the harshest of conditions and pretty
much lasts forever

each day of the hike we were able to SEE from not too far away and also walk
up to Ananzi pictographs on walls from 700 - 1000 years ago amazing,

and pottery shards scattered around. The park trusts that you will not take
anything with you, and so it is left there for us to "discover"

there was also under the stone ledges of the cliffs ruins left by these
people who they think about 700 years ago suddenly left the area, perhaps
they think joining up with the Navajos and being assimilated into their
so we saw evidence of their houses and grainerys still there in the rocks
we followed a creek running through the canyonland, so we had access to water
the entire time,
climbing back out took the whole last day of the hike, we saw majestic views
and I mean every bit of that word,

the hike out involved ladders set against the rock cliffs, this was not so
easy to do with backpacks, good thing we'd eaten most of our food

we camped in the campground that evening and next day drove to Arches Nat.
Park about 80 miles north, on our way out
we hiked to several arches, I felt like a naturalist, ticking them off a
list the next morning we had a wild plan--to get up before the sun and drive
around to the WINDOWS ARCHES, as we climbed up to it in semi-darkness there
were a few people, but as we walked through the arch we saw on the eastern
side a gaggle of photographers sitting like pigeons on the rocks, roosting
with their tripods. I traversed over to them and waited in the COLD, as the
sun peeked over the horizon and the light began to hit the arch there was
MAGIC--the rocks went gold and then red, there was so much clicking taking
place that it was deafening

now, like many artists, I feel a pull to the southwest, but also in a much
more practical sense--you NEVER have to worry about weather there, it is
warm and USUALLY sunny,
this a.m. in Chicago it was 35 degrees and the weathermen are predicting
SNOW for tonight

Monday, April 11, 2011

Things That Used to Sound Funny

There were 2 things that use to evoke a sort of "that'll never be me" kind of response.

One was menopause--sorry if this is too real for some of my readers. Me and my girlfriends use to laugh about our mothers, wiping their foreheads, back of the neck with potholders, napkins at the supper table, suddenly turning red and leaving a room. We use to say can you imagine in a few years all of us being like that. We'd laugh and say we'd all need to buy personal fans. But it never really sank in.

Until we all NEEDED to buy personal fans. Until we woke up 3, 4 times a night, sometimes to take a shower, only to get back in bed between damp sheets.

I mean what were our options. Medication on the market all carried disclaimers that sustained use could/would cause cancer. There are no options. It was a soul-draining slog where you feel like you're living a half life or jet lag--for years. Right when you're to the pt that your kids aren't keeping you awake at night suddenly your own body won't let you rest.

It wasn't funny. And it did happen to me.

The other thing was hearing people talk about "someday" taking care of parents. They seemed so weary, so bland. I thought, well that won't be me because (what--they weren't going to age, they'd live forever, or nothing that bad could ever befall me--or even I have super powers??!). It has happened. Is happening now.

This weekend we drove to my parent's house in northern Ohio, a land so economically depressed that we were depressed just getting there through the bleak countryside, to find their situation even in the span of 2 months further deteriorated. Oxygen in Use met me at the door. That was different from the last time I was there in February. You see no one tells me anything. That was one of the reasons we made the trip. But I think only seeing things for myself could actually convince me that things are going south VERY quickly. That evening taking care of them hammered the nail home. My husband and I were up every two hours telling them what the time was and NO it's not morning, not time to start the coffee pot, and NOT time to shower.

I won't go into other details, but the next day we got Home Helpers in there because we needed a rest. And in that space of time I saw that THIS IS ME. This is now. We were at that point where decisions will have to be made and, man oh man, this is going to be HARD.

So now I'm home, exhausted, and still reeling. Everything has changed.

And I wish we could all go back to 1977, to our avocado green kitchen and a wall phone where the cord stretched into the living room and Mom saying you have a phone call and handing me the receiver and me sitting on the nubby upholstered couch watching TV, petting the dog, with the phone pressed between my shoulder and ear. I can hear her now, behind me the pass-thru window, in the kitchen making supper.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chicago Curiosities

I contributed to Scotti's new book, Chicago Curiosities by recommending 2 curious places here in Chicago
Check out the book trailer

Gone and Now Back

I've been gone and am now back. I spent a week backpacking in Canyonlands National Park.

What I need to do now is get organized. Sooo many good things have been happening lately. Right before I left I got a grant from the Il Arts Council, which I will officially accept as I'm now going to this.

I'll try to post my pics from the hike where I an 3 other friends did the Salt Creek Trail and came out to Squaw Flat via the Peekaboo. I hardly ever use this word, but it was AWESOME.

For right now I need to recoup. Gear up for a critique group meeting next week and this weekend leaving town for my nephew's wedding--where I'll be helping more or less with my parents who are declining healthwise. It seems now that once a month I see them and can access their current condition--which is always changing. But at least we all made it thru another winter. This is a BIG deal for seniors. So if you have an older parent, call them and congratulate them on making it to spring 2011.