Writing Q&A 18: Truth in memoir; Formatting manuscripts for submission
Published: March 13, 2007
|How much of a memoir should be true?|
This is an interesting question in light of recent literary news, where certain memoirists are faced with angry readers when fabrications are discovered. And who can blame those readers? Memoir, by its very definition, is a narrative of personal experience. The word itself comes from the Latin word meaning "memory." In labeling a book a memoir, the author creates a contract with the reader that the book is recording actual events.
But what are "actual events" anyway? A memoir doesn't just detail the facts of what happened like a history textbook might; it portrays the writer's experience of what happened. And anyone who has ever compared notes with a sibling about a shared past event knows that people can experience the exact same moment in very different ways.
Still, some details are simple fact, no matter what an individual thinks or feels about them. A three-year stint in jail? You either served it or you didn't. Ditched the entire fifth grade to steal and sell car parts? You either spent those days on the street, under cars, watching out for rightful owners, or you didn't. It's that simple. Yet, much of life doesn't fit into such easy categories. Many moments are open to interpretation. For example, Lucy may have felt harassed in high school by the principal's son. Her friends might not have called it harassment and the principal's son may have said it was a crush. But the harassment felt real to Lucy-the intimidating stares during class time, notes with sexual undertones that felt threatening-so much so that she hid in the bathroom during lunch all of Sophomore year. That is the memoirist's truth-her experience of the actions.
This distinction between simple fact and personal truth is important. James Frey, author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces, wrote a book that clearly touched many people for its candid and intense portrayal of addiction. But his fabrication of simple facts-the claim that he served 87 days in jail, for instance, rather than the 3 hours he really spent-casts doubt on Frey's genuineness throughout the entire book.
As if that's not enough of a gray area, here's another facet: the memoirist needs to dramatize. It's essential to a strong narrative. But try and remember conversations from yesterday-let alone 15 years ago-word for word. How does that work out for you? Writers couldn't possibly remember each word exchanged or every sequence of actions. In such situations, memoir writers will invent, but still stay true to the heart of the moment. Betty's father might not have said, "Get out of my house. Nobody's got time for you now," to his daughter when she was ten, but he did say something akin to that, which made her feel unwanted and vulnerable enough to go running out the front door, barefoot in the snow. In writing that line, Betty would be staying true to her experience of the moment.
|Is it true that for submission purposes italics in a manuscript should be replaced with underlined words? What is considered standard for the industry? |
When you want a portion of your text be italicized in the printed copy, use italics when submitting a manuscript. This is standard, so do so unless an editor or publisher specifically requests otherwise.
This also raises a larger question about the debate over italicizing versus underlining. Back in the days before computers made it a cinch to manipulate the look of text, underlining was used to off set text, such as indicating a book title. Some writers have held onto this practice even though they've tossed their typewriters. While underlining isn't necessarily wrong, it's become old fashioned. (In fact, some file conversion programs actually take all underlined text and italicize it.) If you're holding onto the old ways, try and get in the habit of italicizing what you used to underline.
But let's back up. How do you know when to italicize? Italics are used for emphasis-sparingly-when the structure of the sentence itself doesn't already convey this. Some writers mistakenly italicize any and all titles, but only book-length titles get this honor. (And most newspapers make this all the more confusing by using quotation marks for all titles. But newspapers get to play by their own rules.) Titles of shorter works, like short stories and poems, should be put in quotation marks.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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