Embellishment, Lies and The First Stone

A personal note to my readers and followers. Thank you for hanging in there when nothing new has been forthcoming. A family medical situation and some care taking has superseded writing lately. Life does get in the way of art.

In March, I am presenting a class titled Magic, Myth, and Memoir. While reviewing my notes,  I thought about how the word embellishment is being bandied about in conversations regarding NBC’s Brian Williams.

I’m occasionally guilty of adding or exaggerating details–or at least choosing colorful adjectives–to make a story more dramatic or entertaining to my audience. But do I lie? No, not deliberately, but I recall one embarrassing incident that still makes me cringe. I was teaching a university research course in the late 90s. One day, my students began discussing radicalism in the 60s and 70s. Realizing that I, unlike them, was alive at the time, they asked me about various speakers and leaders, including Angela Davis.

“A dynamic speaker,” I said. “She could electrify a room.”
“Did you see her in person?” one student asked.
“Yes,” I said, “in the Bay Area.”

I told them what I knew of her career, along with that of various student protesters and activists. It was only later, when I thought about it, that I realized I had not seen her in person. I couldn’t have, since by then I’d left California and was living in Colorado. It wasn’t a deliberate lie or embellishment on my part. I wasn’t trying to impress or even entertain my students, only answer their questions.

So why did I believe I’d been in the audience and heard her speak? Probably because I’d seen her on televised news programs, read numerous accounts of her arrest in Marin County, and followed the subsequent trial. It was a tumultuous time in America, and she and others were clear newsmakers. Still, I’d made a false statement, albeit unintentional. I can’t cast stones at Brian–or anyone else for that matter.

This raises a question; does a memoir lend itself to embellishment? Will readers accept a certain amount of theatrical tweaking of the events or facts? Where does a memoirist draw the line?

There’s a clear difference between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography is usually a fact-based chronology of the writer’s life from birth to the present. A memoir may only focus on a particular period or emotional aspect of the writer’s life. Memoirs tend to be intimate and  revealing. While the memoirist may recount dates, names, and events accurately, they might also magnify details for dramatic affect.

For example, in Frank McCourt’s best selling memoir, Angela’s Ashes, his descriptions are so powerful–and so jarring–that we visualize the hunger and the squalor on a visceral level. He frequently refers to his painful eye condition, “The sore spreads into my eyes anyway and now they are red and yellow from the stuff that oozes. . ..”

He could have just said, “I suffered from an eye condition most of my life which caused them to be red and sore,” but throughout his book he chooses to insert graphic descriptions of his chronic eye condition, a condition that becomes a symbol of the poverty and the lack of medical care he experienced growing up in mean circumstances.

If a person has a headache, even moderate, he or she will often use terms like, “My head is pounding,” or “I feel like my head is about to explode,” or “My head feels like it’s in a vice.” These frequently exaggerated expressions indicate that not only is someone experiencing pain, but he or she wants to describe it in dramatic terms for effect.

So, how do we write engaging narration without obscuring or distorting the truth?

Try this: If you’ve already written a first draft, choose several paragraphs. If you haven’t started yet, pick an incident that is especially vivid in your memory and write a few paragraphs. Since it is a memoir, you will have written it in first person.

Now convert your narrative to third person, rewriting it as though you were recounting an incident that happened to another individual. Examine the difference: which one is the most illuminating? Vibrant? Evocative? Which one is closer to the truth?

Switching to third person for clarification allows us to find the heart of our narrative without distorting the facts. For example, I recently drafted a memoir of my early childhood on a sheep ranch in Wyoming (where my parents struggled with my brother’s illness and financial woes).

It didn’t take me long to figure out that when I used the first person pronoun, it appeared I thought my childhood antics were cute. When I wrote in third person, it was clear that my mischievousness wasn’t charming, it was bratty.

In this case, my manuscript worked much better in third person, so I decided to turn the memoir into a limited biography of my parents’ life and the hardships they endured–as well as the love they shared–during the first sixteen years of their marriage. In the process, I portrayed my role accurately.

When I finally do write my first person memoir, I will try to achieve objectivity, stick to the truth, and, following McCourt’s example, let the power of description flow freely.