Saturday, July 10, 2010

Memoir- A Valid Resource

Candidly in the foreward to Papa Married  A Mormon, John Dennis Fitzgerald states,
The story of the miners and the Mormons as Papa, Mamma, and I knew them, still had to be told, and could be told only by some use of poetic license so that the story would be of the people who made Utah history and not history per se.
Through out literary time writers have often employed this same choice and not be stung by it.  Catherine Marshall's Christie,  Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, there is even a running debated about the similarities to Harper Lee's To Kill a  Mockingbird and her real life.  Yet for the volume of stories that get by with it, there is a small pile of writers who get hung by it.  John Dennis Fitzgerald is one of them.
As an aspiring writer I subscribe to Writer's Digest Magazine, this past issue deals with the struggle of memoirist.  Memoirs are autobiographical life stories.  Memoirs however differ from the standard autobiography.  Author Susan Swetnam defines memoir. It
 "refers to narratives of personal recollection that go beyond simply chronicling interior thoughts and instead also depict important external events and people in the subject's lives...Memoirs are by definition subjective.  As writers remember their lives, they tend to retrieve memories in terms of schema, mental record-keeping, patterns that (they) have already organized and assigned meaning to the events to be recollected."
Writer's Digest opens with an article called Based on a True Story.  The author of the article met a famous up and coming memoirist, James Frey.  They had exchanged some emails.  She had enjoyed both his books and his emails of encouragement with her writing.  What happened next was amazing.

The articles author, Jenny Rough, an avid reader herself, watched an episode of Oprah, where James Frey was being interviewed, no sorry, filleted.  It seems that the famous author was being charged by Oprah with embellishment and was being tried for treason. On the show Oprah portrayed him as an alcoholic, a wreck, "the child you pray you would never have to raise."  His crime, writing a memoir.  The articles author, Jenny Rough, said,
" Memoirists play with time and fudge facts to protect others' privacy.  Omissions can be hugely deceptive, yet all memiorists forgo some details....Memoir writing can be hard, painful work, and if those who are trying to stick strictly to literal truth want to avoid the kinds of questions other memoirs can raise, perhaps there should be a way to differentiate them."

I believe John's works all fall into this abyss.  As we have seen his work is not literal.  Neither in exact names nor dates.  But were his choices "lies".  Some think so.  Others of us, and I throw myself into that catagory, understand the story tellers struggle.

History is vital.  The information, insight, and lessons can teach anyone who follows.  I also know that history is subjective according to the person or people viewing- either first hand or a few steps back.

 I for one love boring history.  Just plain facts, laid out in linear form.  I can tangle with them, visualize them, etc.  But most people can't.  Just look at high school history, or the short lines at college for "history majors".
History can be VERY BORING.  Memoir can bring history to life.

Shaped well, written authentically it can put the reader front and center on the time, season, or event being told.  I believe strongly that this is one of the key gifts John's works provide.  Every book you and I read we walk down the streets of dusty town, we make ice cream on the back porch, we are grounded for our naughty behavior, and we watch gunslingers tame the town.

 All of that happened in Price. It happened in the Price John knew and lived.  Price was also a town that has succeeded, long before it was PC to do so, to embrace anyone and everyone who crossed it's threshold.  Even the outlaws.

In my mind John's work should be heralded, not only as valid, but as a gift to literacy, history, and memoir.  Last of all, if it were in my influence to do so, I would encourage elementary and junior high school teachers to make his books one of their required readings.

Thanks for letting me bend your ear with my opinion.
Have a great weekend.

1 comment:

  1. The difference is that Mr. Fitzgerald was upfront that he was using poetic license and that everything in his book was not literally true or exactly as described.

    James Frey did not do that. He portrayed the story he wrote as actual events, and some of the most dramatic were the least true.