It’s said that in prose, there is fiction and non-fiction. In poetry, there is only poetry. I like this for its allusion to the notion of truth in writing. When we read non-fiction, we expect it to be comprised of facts, to be informational. On the contrary, as readers of fiction, we want a story shaped by literary conventions, such as plot, character, setting, and lovely imagery. Above everything, we expect a good story.
One literary genre that incorporates narrative and non-fiction, demands that the writer be at once honest and creative. Autobiography or memoir writing blends the best of storytelling with the reportage of real-life events. However, when the author is writing about himself, he often finds truth to be a difficult thing to pin down, slipping out of his grasp as he attempts to articulate it. Writers who compose autobiographies or memoirs find themselves challenged in ways that would intimidate even the most honest.
Generally, autobiographical writing is traced back to St. Augustine of Hippo and his Confessions, in which he describes his conversion from that of a sinful young man to a member of the church, who eventually is annointed as a saint. As a practice, this kind of personal or confessional writing has evolved from autobiography, written by the very famous, to memoir, penned more often by the not-so-famous, who led interesting or unsual lives. While autobiographies deal with entire lives, memoirs focus on a few important events that reveal the writer as a person.
For the writer, the process of composing one’s life story in an autobiography, can be a cathartic experience, because, as the late composition scholar and writer, Donald Murray observes,
“We humans are the beasts that record and share the present, remember the past, and predict the future in narrative. We are storytellers, using the beginning, middle and end to order the river flood of confusion and contradiction in which we struggle to survive” (89).
As we write about our lives, we weave together seemingly unrelated life experiences until patterns and themes emerge, and we are able to connect experience with causation and intention. Writing becomes a process of personal discovery, and we write to understand who we are. Composition scholars claim that in the process of writing about one’s life, the author creates his identity. This process, called narrative identity theory by French philospher Paul Ricouer, is an act of self-creation or author-ization. Simply put, we reveal who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves.
The complicating factor here is that the writer who composes his memoir must work with the material he has at hand–memory. And, because of its fluid, uncontrollable nature, memory makes writing more difficult, albeit more interesting. It doesn’t help that this genre encourages the writer to take liberties with the truth. Mara Naselli observes in “Truth in Memoir” (January 2006, identitytheory), that memoir, as an art form may well encourage a certain non-truthfulness in the writer. “It isn’t that fact doesn’t matter in memoir. It’s that the very form, at its best, wrestles with fact and with the space between fact and memory. Because there’s always space between fact and memory. We are dependent on stories, not facts, to make sense of our lives.”
Naselli isn’t claiming that memoirists are incapable of being honest with themselves; rather, she’s making the point that, as human beings, we rationalize events and justify behavior, until, eventually, we build up psedo-identifies of the people we think we have become, based on those rationalizations and justifications. And, because the genre of memoir favors storytelling, writers are not challenged to exmaine themselves as the architects of the stories they write.
A recent example of this is the memoir written by recovering drug-user, James Frey, whose chronicle of his life events was exposed as a collection of highly exaagerated stories, if not lies, on the Oprah Winfrey show. Frey admitted that he exaggerated and, in some instances, manufactured events. (This, by the way is not terribly unsual as memoir writers go). Was Frey enticed by the conventions of the genre to write good stories at the cost of honesty?
In her NY Times article about Frey, Mary Karr notes that “memior writing is about the testing and scrutity of our own myths because our true stories are better than the myths we have created around them.” But, one must wonder if Frey’s version of truth was shaped by his drug-induced state of mind. The rub is that writing is a process that sets the writer on a journey toward truth, although it doesn’t guarantee that he will arive at its door. Let’s take this a step further by returning to the notion of the writer’s identity, particularly as it’s shaped by the experience of writing in a computer-mediated environment.
For the past few years, scholars have been interested in the impact of technology on the writer’s identity. It’s already accepted that a writer must assume the identity of an author in order to compose, and it’s widely accepted that the setting in which writing gets done influences the finished product. For example, writers produce different works when they are in an academic setting, than they do when they write in a private setting. So, it follows that the author may be a very different person when writing online–as is evidenced by the behavior exhibited by participants in a chat room or online discussion. In order to compose online, the writer must become one who understands the conventions and navigates the environment with some ease.
A new form of personal writing, that of blogging, has some interesting implications for the writer’s identity and, of course, for his quest for truth. When the author composes blogs, she records her thoughts, impressions, reactions, questions, observations about life experiences. She chronicles daily activities, at least those that catch her attention, she rants, or purges her thoughts onto the screen. In the movie, “Julie and Julia,” the central character publishes daily posts about her adventures as she cooks 524 of Julia Child’s french recipes. As a genre, blogging is a very spontaneous form of writing, not unlike impromptu speaking. Because the reading audience expects to be able to read a blog quickly, sentences tend to be shorter, verbs stronger, and lots of imagery is used to do the work of conveying ideas. The publication deadline is short–shorter than, perhaps any other genre, so the writing tends to be done rather quickly. These elements may put truth in writing at higher risk and make it more difficult for the writer to apprehend.
To appreciate the way blogging shapes the writer’s identity, it’s important to understand that personal writing, such as memoir or blogging, focuses on the emotional and intellectual notions of the author–placing the author at the center of the text. As the writer composes, he clarifies for himself, his identity. But, the work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault suggests just the opposite. He argues that text becomes primary, taking importance over the writer, and, eventually, diminishes the writer’s presence. In his essay, “What is an Author?” Foucault argues that writing is “primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.” In Foucault’s words, the “author is dead.” The writer becomes secondary in importance to the text; in fact, he is produced by it. Of course, to subscribe to this notion, one must believe that the author’s identity is fluid, and changes as he writes.
Every author is the subject of his/her own memoir or autobiography. In that sense, the truth about the author’s identity shifts with each experience she reveals in her work. It’s altered by every story she tells. Whether the writer is inside the text, or not, the process or act of writing is, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “survival.” It’s more than how we project ourselves into the world, tell the world who we are. Writing is how we become the authors of our lives. As we come to terms with the demands technology has placed on the writer, we may discover more about who we become when we write in computer-mediated environments. In particular, we need to examine the nuances of technology’s impact on the writer’s ability to come to terms with truth or unity about the self. Does writing online complicate the writer’s ability to apprehend truth, or facilitate it? This is just one of the questions that must be asked as we consider the implications of technology for writing and writers.
For more on my musings about truth telling in narratives, read this post.