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January 20, 2006

Remembering well?

Today’s Chicago Tribune ran yet another commentary about “the whole Oprah-James Frey-fraudulent memoir flap.” I suspect more of us, me included, have read about Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces, than have read it—or plan to. But the questions this “flap” have raised about truth-in-telling are intriguing and important, and I do take a look at most of the articles about it.
    
One hasn’t been explored, enough: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? I asked Rochelle Melander, herself hard at work on a memoir due out next year and a writing coach who leads people through the process of putting their own life stories down on paper. This genre long has fascinated Melander, an ELCA pastor. With her husband, Harold Eppley, she wrote “Meeting God in memoirs” for The Lutheran, Sept. 2004.

Story, she says, is key in defining memoirs: “With memoirs, people automatically think of non-fiction. But a memoir is a story. It’s creative non-fiction—a personal journey that looks at internal responses to external circumstance. In terms of writing, a memoir has all the elements of a novel: setting, characters, plot, conflict, denouement.”

Melander says the writers she works with get stuck, trying to be “absolutely truthful.” She gets their stories moving by encouraging them to set the scene, describing a house they don’t actually remember, and to make up dialogue, re-creating a long-ago moment. “And I tell them to lump people together. You need a catalyst for change—perhaps the person in the memoir is three people in your life. That’s perfectly legitimate. It’s your story you’re telling. There are even legal and ethical issues in exposing these people. You don’t want to do it.

She points out that this is a difference between the creative non-fiction of memoir and the historical account of a public person, like a president, in an autobiography. That said, Melander still criticizes Frey for “really pushing the limits” with his fabrication of a three-year prison term.

So that’s her answer. And here’s the question she leaves us with: “Does something really have to happen to be true? It’s good to think about what truth is.”

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