It always distresses me when I hear writers (often memoirists) say that they could never have told the story they did if certain family members or friends were still alive. Frequently, these are child abuse stories, but they might also involve alcohol and drug problems, a coming out experience—crime. Or perhaps the work in question simply presents an unflattering portrait of certain people that the author is reluctant to own up to face to face. Novelists and poets can confront this same dilemma of course, although there is the perception (read: illusion) of greater creative distance (Thomas Wolfe could’ve told you about the pitfalls there)—but it’s precisely this margin of difference, however thin and vague it may be, that the memoirist is trading on.
Yet basing something on real life is a very different proposition than saying it is real life—I’m not sure how any piece of writing can be that. Ceci n’est une pipe. It’s a book. Still, there are those who just can’t come to terms with this fundamental distinction, and for them, Anne Lamott has a wonderful saying to the effect that, if people wanted to be remembered well by you, then they should’ve behaved better! This is cheering, and seeks to reaffirm our right to our own experiences—but still the reasons for trepidation are real and perhaps wise. (I personally believe trepidation of any kind is a good thing artistically, because it gives you a wall to drive your car through.)
In any case, I experienced this issue directly in my latest book Sea Monkeys, published by Soft Skull Press, which is theoretically about my childhood and coming of age. As a novelist who has published some out-there stuff, I have an advantage here. My first novel Zanesville angered Kevin Costner, intrigued Michael Jackson, and bewildered more than a few. My second novel Private Midnight was described by Kirkus Reviews as “definitely not a Mother’s Day present” and by Playboy as “The edge of the Edge.” I’ve already risked potential shock, offense or just sheer disbelief amongst my family, and I think they’ve taken it very well. They have in fact been immensely supportive of my career. I’m proud of them. But nonetheless.
My principal means of dealing with the question of my past and people I’ve known has been to phrase Sea Monkeys as a “Memory Book” as opposed to a “Memoir,” and to label it as Creative Nonfiction, where all real names are either changed or simply not used. I don’t see this as any kind of cop-out at all. It’s given me greater artistic freedom and license, and I’m a big fan of both. I believe it also has a marketing rationale. I personally am not wild about memoirs generally, but I would pick up something called a Memory Book.
I had in mind Tennessee Williams’ description of his breakthrough work The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play,” by which he meant to prepare audiences that he was stepping outside the expected dramatic conventions of the American realist theater to enact a story in a more personal, eccentric way, which he felt was truer to his artistic and psychological intentions. People familiar with the play and with Williams’ life will know just how profoundly autobiographical it is. Yet, the result is rendered with a lyricism of both fragmentation and focus that moves the drama beyond the strange insular story of his life to be a powerful fairytale-like work that has broad reach. (In fact, the play is still very much in the realist tradition and Williams would go on to far greater experimentation—but at the time, 1944, it seemed dreamlike and a fresh way of bringing a story to life on stage.)
The tension between fragmentation and focus was much on my mind in writing Sea Monkeys. I also thought of the mysterious (and to me, magical) “memory books” I made as a child. They were actually just scrapbooks, but I filled them with scribbles and doodles, pieces of things I found on walks home from school, leaves from Live Oak Park in Berkeley, Crackerjacks prizes, Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrappers, words I couldn’t spell properly (like Mathuzila), a peculiar notation system I developed to try to record bits of melodies that crossed my mind, all kinds of arithmetic sorcery based on the numbers of my favorite NFL players (like Johnny Unitas, #19, which would become my number later), Kodak snapshots and training wheel lines of poems.
With these lost ghost books of totems and cereal box trinkets in mind, my goal in Sea Monkeys wasn’t to impose some kind of artificial linear narrative frame on my life, but to try to address some of the complexities of how memory actually works—how it skips and grabs at moments—how some red letter dates and apparently grand occasions melt away in time and often things we thought we’d forgotten or were never worth recalling, come back to us with an unaccountable vividness. (I have the curious smell of an obscure children’s grape drink called Spook in my nostrils right now.)
At points during the writing I told myself that I was saving many of the most supposedly “significant” moments in my early life for some other larger scale work, and time may prove this true. But the immediate reality was I wrote what came to mind, and let that aspect of mind we call memory be the principal subject and protagonist of the book, and also the determiner of its form.
I think this is one of the major factors behind the problem of the blurred line between the novel and the memoir (which in recent times has caused bestsellers like James Frey and Augusten Burroughs some headaches). The “I” first person narrator is often too obviously the focal point. By redefining the concept of a memory-based work in terms of how my memory really works, I’ve tried to expand the nature of the story beyond my life (however I’ve imagined or misremembered it) to instead be a piece of writing focusing on the mysteries and vagaries of memory, while seeking a literary style that reflects this. The relationship between imagination and memory is of course the key point. It may be that memory is best considered as another form our imaginations take, a critical function, but not a distinctly different function.
Of course, the real problem with the matter of the memoir versus the novel, with fiction as opposed to nonfiction, is the suggestion / presumption of some never properly defined notion of Truth. What a quagmire and false frontier that is. Whose truth? What kind of truth? A good deal of all forms of literature explicitly explores the relativity of truth, particularly in terms of human relationships and the perception of events. Then there is both the deeper and more basic matter that any kind of truth you finally decide on may very likely be only a temporary phenomenon, if it exists at all. What you remember changes with time and aging—but how you remember something, how you feel about it and interpret its meaning—could change by the day or even the minute in some circumstances.
Accuracy of fact checking in a journalistic sense is important and professional—if you’re working in a journalistic context (and certainly in a political context!). It wasn’t the context I was working in or something I was in any way interested in. If I was in pursuit of any kind of truth that can be named, it’s a psychological one—and a broad canvas, yet also microscopic one at that. I’m a storyteller and an anthropologist at heart, and my methods are haphazard both by intention and by my nature. I’ve merely applied these disciplines as I’ve come to practice them on the illusion of myself and the shattered kaleidoscope of my imagined-memory ever present vanished past.
A crucial misconception that’s related to this last point is the endlessly confusing idea that “nonfiction” somehow implies truthfulness. History books are nonfiction, and they’re more often than not riddled with inaccuracies, factual errors, suppositions, speculations and highly subjective arguments. Subconscious, if not extremely conscious and intentional forces are always at work. A political speech is supposedly nonfiction—and yet what could be further from the truth? And what could be a more obvious and ham-fisted rhetorical ploy anyway than a statement such as, “I’m going in search of the truth?” Good for you, as the anarchistic philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend would’ve said. Is that the real truth you’re looking for?
As to the question we started out with, of whether or not you’re going to offend or even hurt someone with what you write, I’d point out that this can happen in any kind of artistic work—or even with just a seemingly casual remark. It’s polite, respectful and prudent to take other people’s opinions and feelings into consideration. That’s part of the definition of sanity and social maturity. It’s quite another thing to take full responsibility for people’s interpretations and to be ruled by these anxieties, and what’s more, to stifle personal expression on their account—especially when what’s stifled might be the very cause of the underlying friction to begin with. “Catharsis don’t come easy,” as a friend of mine once said. It often takes a thunderstorm to clear the air. What finally counts most of all, in my view, isn’t the accuracy, validity or even sincerity of what you write—it’s just how good the writing is. Ultimately, writers have responsibilities to only two things: the fulfillment of their artistic vision; and the satisfaction of the most demanding, sympathetic and important family of all—readers.
Kris Saknussemm is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Zanesville, Private Midnight, Enigmatic Pilot and Reverend America, a collection of short stories called Sinister Miniatures, and a portfolio art book The Colors of Compulsion. Sea Monkeys is his first full-length work of creative nonfiction.