Thursday, June 6, 2013

Memoir: Autobiography with Artistic License

When I read Nic Sheff's introductory disclaimer of sorts to Tweak, I had to remind myself: "This is memoir, not autobiography." But what's the difference?


"This work is a memoir. It reflects the author's present recollections of his experiences over a period of years."

Those are the first two sentences of Sheff's Note to Readers that precedes the story. This part emphasizes that Sheff could very well be one of those unreliable narrators I told you about last week, and the facts of the story are only as solid as his memory of them. (Considering this is a memoir of a young man with a very serious drug addiction, this is important to keep in mind.) This is the part of memoirs that distracts me while I'm reading dialogue. Part of my brain that I can't shut off keeps asking me, like a pesky kid at a movie, "How does he know that's exactly what he said? How can he put a line of dialogue in quotation marks instead of saying 'we argued about the drugs' when he can't possible perfectly recall the wording?" The point is, it doesn't matter exactly how things were worded or precisely where someone was standing in relation to others, but having read the memoir disclaimer, this was important to the annoying, distracting part of my brain.


"Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed, and certain individuals are composites." 

This is the next part of the Note to Readers, and the part that bothers me once we've been around a character for a while. When Nic has sex with one girl, I wonder if he's compiled several months' worth of trysts into one. When he starts selling meth with one friend, I wonder if there was a whole group working on it. When he describes a celebrity friend's features, work, and connections, I wonder if I'd be able to identify that celebrity with some Googling, or if those details are all made up (and if they are, whether they're similar to the truth or just totally out of left field). I completely understand why "names are changed to protect the innocent/guilty" but it's distracting.

Memoir Vs. Autobiography

You see, memoir is not an autobiography in two big ways.

First, memoir focuses on a slice of the author's life - one event, facet, or perspective - whereas an autobiography is meant to encompass their entire life up to that point: the pie as a whole, if you will.

Also, memoir gets more artistic license. In a memoir, you can change names and combine similar events to get the story moving and omit characters or scenes that don't directly relate to the event or facet you're trying to portray.

A Million Little Pieces.jpg

Remember the controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces? If you don't, here's the meat of it: he took a little too much artistic license for a memoir. It was originally published and marketed as a memoir, but people found out that too much of it was fictionalized, so now it is a "semi-fictional novel." Really, the whole thing may never have been such a big deal if Oprah hadn't made this her Book Club book.

What Oprah said about the scandal was, first, that she was sorry to her fans and she felt like she had betrayed them, but beyond that, the book was still helpful for recovering addicts, and you can't let the fictional parts get in the way of that.

And that's where memoirs and autobiographies have something in common (other than being based - to some extent - on the author's life): they are usually written to teach or help others who find themselves in similar situations to those the author has faced and written about.

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