Apprenticed to Venus

As Director of CAS I want to tell you why I, who have nurtured so many other memoirs to publication, finally felt free to write my own memoir about my mentor, Anaïs Nin, and why it took me so long to address the subject and begin the book.

What follows is the preface that I wrote for the opening of Apprenticed to Venus to be published July 11, 2017 by Arcade. It was cut from the final edit of the book for reasons of length. I put it here because I suspect I am not the only diarist to feel repulsed upon reading the outpourings of a younger self.



Hawaii, 2006

I don’t know how the L.A. Times journalist got my phone number at the remote Hawaii house I co-owned. She had interrupted my prep for a filmmaking class I was teaching that summer for the university in Hilo.

“I’m calling you because Anaïs Nin’s husband Rupert Pole died. I understand that you were Nin’s friend and protégé. You and she wrote The New Diary.

“No, that’s a mistake on Amazon. I wrote that book. She just wrote the preface.”

“Whatever, you worked together. You were also friends with Rupert, so I was hoping you’d comment…”

I was dumbstruck. Not by news of Rupert’s death (he’d had several strokes) but because it meant – after 42 years – I was finally free from my pledge to Anaïs that I would hide her secrets involving him forever.

“No one can keep a secret forever.” She’d given me a canny smile. “You need only keep silent until Rupert dies.”

Now, some thirty years after her death, Rupert had died. Now this journalist was phoning, now I was the age Anaïs had been when I’d made my vow. Long after the biographers, who never knew her, had unearthed her dirt. Could this young journalist think there was still something worth digging for? I threw her a bone, quickly hung up, and sat in a muddle, unmoving, staring at the surf snaking along the shore.

In the following months, as I drove to U.H. Hilo’s small campus to teach, snippets from my years as Anaïs’ accomplice buzzed and nipped at me. They gave me an itch to look inside my own diaries written between 1962 and ‘76, when Anaïs was my mentor in the realm of the senses.

When I got back to my home in Los Angeles, I climbed a stepladder to reach the high shelf where my diaries from the ‘60’s and 70’s moldered. I had written those diaries for my older self to read, and now I was my older self. With maturity, though, I’d developed a prudishness that disowned the young woman who had scribbled those journals. As I hoisted down a Hippyish handmade volume with wooden-covers, I dreaded what I’d find. Only a quarter of the way through that fervent diary I had to put it aside, nauseated.

Yet as the first decade of the 21st Century slid in its downward arc, I realized that I again needed my younger self’s passion and daring, needed to remember a time when material things mattered not at all, needed the hunger and inspiration that comes with exalting a mentor, deserved or not. Entangled as I had been with Anaïs, I would finally have to sort out her influence on my life. For me that meant, now that I could, setting down our intertwined stories: her divine seductiveness, her madcap ruses and countless deceptions, my too willing complicity, and the shared injury of father abandonment that had forged our bond as co-conspirators and seductresses.

So it was that I followed the pliant, fuzzy twine of memory, rather than the diary’s sharp shards, back into Anaïs’ silken web. In reveries, I felt again the touch of her cool fingers and heard the chime of her laughter, as we walked together in late afternoon, our figures, so similar, casting before us as long, Giacometti shadows. Once more, the angled sun in that century past caught the scar along her delicate ear and polished her silvery lids, as she whispered confidences to me, delivered like a kiss.


Remembering John Ferrone who died 4/10/2016

Anaïs Nin introduced me to John Ferrone, her Harcourt Brace Jovanovich editor, at her Silverlake, California house where she lived as the wife of Rupert Pole. John, a New Yorker, knew her other husband, Hugo Guiler, as well, and was privy to the secret of Anaïs’ double life. As one of the most grace-full men I have known, both in his manner and his movements, he was at ease in the world of sexual/emotional discretion. He’d lived the life of an undisguised gay man of 1950’s New York, and it was a world he negotiated with integrity and subtlety.

In 1978 when I published my first book The New Diary in hardbound, John made an offer to my publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, for Harcourt to acquire the paperback rights. Although he was contractually obligated to inform me of the offer, Tarcher without my knowledge rejected the Harcourt offer out of hand. When later I learned from John that he’d made the trade paperback offer while no one had told me, he was outraged. He was a genteel literary editor, a breed that has all but disappeared, a man of honor who pledged his impressive gifts to enhance the work of his authors and stay in the background. He was modest about the vast improvements he made in Anaïs Nin’s prose.

Anaïs, who most valued spontaneity in writing, once told me dismissively flicking her fingers, “Punctuation, grammar, that’s for editors.” John did far more than correct her unschooled grammar and punctuation, though. He highlighted the intelligence and emotional wisdom in her outpourings while giving her work an aesthetic subtlety it would otherwise lack.

Because of his commitment to make Anais’ writing shine in the best light, John’s relationship with Rupert became antagonistic after her death. Each man complained to me about the other. Rupert wanted to preserve Anais’ every word as she wrote it. He was working with John on Harcourt’s publication of her posthumous erotic work. John was dedicated to making her writing as honed as possible, which required cutting and shaping. They both loved her and her memory and, as with so many people who have loved her or her work, felt an almost irrational exclusive ownership of her.

Yet on another occasion I recall an evening when John and Rupert were as jovial as two teenage buddies together. I was then in my 30’s and working as President of Grand Central Films, a co-venture between Thames Television and an American production company. I wanted to option the Diaries as a network television mini-series. Since John was visiting L.A. and I then had an unlimited expense account, I invited John and Rupert to an expensive trendy restaurant near Paramount. They were adorable, each vying to be the most charming and witty, like competing beaus. Anaïs was gone, but her flirtatious spirit was with us that night.

In later years I would phone John when I visited New York and he would always make time to take me to lunch or dinner or, even better, cook for me. We both enjoyed literary gossip and swapping stories about Anaïs’ foibles and secrets. He was lonely after his partner died, and for such a reserved gentleman, warm and vulnerable when he talked about the importance – the centrality – of love in our lives.

I recall only one disagreement between John and myself; it was just a half-full/half empty difference in perspective. I had been admiring Anaïs’ tenacity in working on herself, in transforming herself from a neurotic, frustrated unpublished writer into a joyous woman who shared her hard-won success and wisdom with others. John bemoaned that Anaïs enjoyed the publication of her Diaries and her emotional equanimity so late in her life. “She only had a few years before knowledge of her cancer ruined it,” he said, “It took her so long to get what she wanted. She enjoyed it so briefly.”

“But she got there. She realized her dreams,” I said.

He shook his head. “Too briefly.”

I understand those feelings now, John. You had a relatively long life, living despite Parkinsons Disease to 91. My regret is that our friendship blossomed only in your later years and lasted too briefly, too briefly.




Guest Blog: Our Transformation from a Journalling Circle to Creating a Book (Wendy and Ahava Writes)

GUEST BLOG: Our Transformation from a Journalling Circle to Creating a Book (Wendy and Ahava Writes)
Wendy Writes

We had been meeting for about two years. It just began to be clear to us, at that point, that we were not just journalling together but were embarking upon a larger project. I suppose we each dreamed into this new phase and it just felt right to us. We continued to journal together but, as we decided to type up some of our entries, we realised that this was not only for ourselves but we sensed it could be inspiration to others, as well. And then the momentum shifted and we began to bring together aspects from some of our individual work and formulating ideas together which became our “Four Practices” and then “Seven Principles.”

I had been teaching writing, literature and women’s studies for many years, as well as facilitating writing workshops for women. It was natural for me to draw upon some of the most influential journal writers that have inspired me and the varied practices, principles and prompts that I was using in my various circles of women.

And then, we began to create drafts upon drafts upon drafts (I still have copies of these in my “playroom” office). Sometimes we met monthly, or with more time in between and, towards the end, weekly and even more frequently than that. We still may have been continuing to work on the book if Ahava hadn’t booked ArtSpring for the middle of November and we set the date for our Book Launch at the Gallery on ArtSpring (for which I am forever grateful!).

And, naturally, there was the entire range of skills that we had to develop and decisions we had to make along the way towards having our book edited, designed and printed that required us to move into this realm of publishing that I, personally, had never before experienced. Also, we had to collaborate and make decisions collectively, so this was at times very challenging, but also allowed us to draw upon our various strengths and skills and share the weight of the tasks at hand.

This continues as we are bringing our beloved book into the world so that others can read, share and use as inspiration for creating their own circles of women writing alone and together.
Ahava Writes
I distinctly remember as we gathered together over the first few months how supported and nourished we felt by the process of writing together and sharing our words aloud. We were all equally astonished at the depth, power, similarities and differences in our writing.

So much so that we three applied, and got accepted to share our experience at a Feminisms conference in Vancouver in May 2007.  Lynda couldn’t make it so Wendy and I presented our workshop on Writing Alone Together at the event at Simon Fraser’s downtown campus.

Within the first year or so, we also began typing up our journal entries, acknowledging their value to us and wondering what we might “do” with them.

During that first year we chose to tape our conversations on several occasions. We were feeling inspired and compelled by what we were hearing, energized by the honesty and emotional intimacy, and relishing the connections we were feeling between us, of the similar books we had read, the healing wisdom and complex understandings about ourselves and the world that was enabled through our decades-long commitments to journal writing.

At some point, I became the Manuscript holder, soon after we started to put our entries, theorizing and philosophizing and ingathering of quotes together.  This lasted up until the publishing date, although we each took many turns working on the various versions of the book.

Within the first two years I believe we created a book proposal that we gave to a local writer who was doing a workshop on them. He told us that it was the most promising one of the bunch he had read. We also submitted a book proposal to New Society Publishers in August 2011, that was rejected. All this walking down “memories’ lane” shows me that we were poised to write a book from very soon into the process although we kept meeting as a writing group for at least two years.

The transition was smooth to begin with, I think, but it got harder and harder as we went along. The process of writing together, freely and heartfully, was so different from the practical labours and even the intuitive listening that was needed to birthe this book. I was doing a PhD, Lynda was being a mother, and Wendy was coping with the challenges of an ageing body and of losing close friends. We were all three finding and deepening our ways to teach this work as we were writing about it.

I so appreciate this opportunity to remember. It is such a glorious feeling to be on this side of the journey. As I have been writing these final words, a moth first landed on my track pad and then flew onto the back of my hand. I look up its meaning in the book Animals Speak, and find the meaning of its magic written within the description for butterfly—transformation. We published the book under Butterfly Press, which is the same press I self-published my first poetry book under in 1998.

The process of transformation in the butterfly and mother has four stages. Ours had three according to Lynda, however I wonder if we all had already been through another stage, which was each of our individual explorations and transformations through journal writing. All of that we each brought to the second stage of Writing together, the third of writing the book together, and now the fourth of sharing the book in the world. We each had so much to offer already when we first met. The journey continues….


Instant memoir as a treatment for trauma?


For the past decade, subsequent to publishing Your Life as Story, I have been interested in developing a form of instant memoir, a new form of diary writing that incorporates the narrative structure of memoir with the immediacy of journal writing. A cross between diary and memoir that offers the benefits of both. In Your Life as Story I distinguished between diary and memoir this way: “the difference between diary and autobiography is that elusive partner in the process, time. The diarist writes from an ever-moving present. Autobiographic writing is written from a later point in time, in retrospect. The autobiographic writer, to a far greater extent than the diarist, re-members the past to find within it thematic continuity and coherent meaning.”

What if, I’ve been asking myself, one could write significant episodes, particularly traumatic ones, without waiting for the alchemy of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility?” What if, still in the heat of spontaneous emotion, you could use the tools of story structure to move yourself along, as on a bullet train, to the release of the climactic conclusion that comes from telling a story: beginning, middle, and end?  What if you could do this without waiting the months and years necessary to be able to get the distance to see your life as story?  What if you could in a journal entry, days after an event or series of events, see your life as story?  A form of narrative therapy that would not require waiting for an appointment with a therapist, but could be written in your blank book or on your computer?  A way of framing a disturbing, unsettling or traumatic event with, at least, the partial resolution that comes from giving it narrative structure?

Might that help prevent the groove of mental repetition that comes from unresolved trauma?  I don’t presume to know. The latest research on PTSD suggests that getting a person to repeat the incident too soon may only make the trauma worse. It’s better to give victims of natural disasters and war, for instance, a pill to help them forget.

Memoirists report that by framing their experiences as a story and writing it down, they are able to finally move on and leave behind emotional flashbacks from which they could not otherwise find release. But that is generally years, often decades after the events, when they can be observed from the distance of time. I am trying to speed up that process for myself in my journal writing by using the steps of story structure. I have the benefit of knowing story structure in my bones from having written films and other narratives and from guiding others to shape their stories. My experiments take the form of rough, first draft autobiographic short stories written in my journal about incidents of the previous days or weeks. I do not stop writing until I have reached a climactic realization, the story’s conclusion, even if it means I only have time to outline the story in short phrases.

If you would like to try this for yourselves follow the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” on page 78 of my book Your Life as Story, but skip steps one and two.  Allow your intuition to carry you to the end of the recent experiences, making sure that you conclude with a prompt such as “and from all of this I now I realize…”

I suspect that many of the benefits of people sharing their stories at Twelve Step meetings come from the formula practiced there of participants’ recent experiences being framed to conclude with a spiritual realization in concordance with the healing principles of the group. What I’m suggesting is similar, using writing, but not confined to any preconceived principles. Here your conclusion/realization is a surprise that comes out of the writing, is specific to you, and may be non-canonical. Hopefully it is healing and followed by release.

Of course, using the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” in my book will only work if you have read, practiced and absorbed the principles of narrative structure explained in the preceding chapters. Otherwise the formula won’t make a lot of sense to you. It’s a lot of effort; not nearly as easy as taking a forgetfulness pill or speaking in a group for five minutes. Still, for those of you who want to give writing instant narrative memoir in your diary a try, I’d love to hear how it worked, or didn’t work, for you. At least, after trying it, you may have an outline for a short story you could fill in later with more finesse, and, quite possibly, with a different conclusion.




A Guided Tour of Select Travel Memoirs by Tristine Rainer

Having recently been interviewed on how to structure travel memoir so it might interest someone besides one’s Facebook or Instagram fans, I dug out an essay I wrote back in the day when CAS stamped and snail-mailed a “First Person” quarterly to donors. Here for this digital medium’s brevity demands, is a new, short version:

We’ll be leaving the Hilton immediately and with it all glossy travel articles that are really an indirect form of advertising. Semi-promotional travel writing has nothing to do with the exploration of self that we’re pursuing in literary travel memoir.

So let’s pause here for the first rule before taking off on a narrative journey: SET UP A DESIRE LINE. What is your dream about your intended adventure?  What are you hoping for? For instance, in two of the early bestselling travel memoirs, Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, the desire is the wish to fit harmoniously into the foreigners’ land. The conflict is between the expectations and values of Brit. Peter Mayle and his wife vs. those of their French neighbors, and between American Frances Mayes and her husband vs. those of their Italian neighbors. Both travel memoirs use the rhetorical device of comparison/contrast throughout, “We do it this way at home, so we were (surprised, annoyed, delighted, mystified) when they…”  Whether it’s between home and foreign land, between the last town or country and the next, or between one’s expectations of a place and the reality, comparison/contrast is a welcome alternative to a mere chronology of sites and events.

Paul Theroux uses comparison/contrast in his 15 travel memoirs, though it seems he is not comparing the exotic locations he visits with the New England he calls home, so much as he’s measuring everywhere against some Platonic ideal of his own, producing his characteristically grouchy criticalness. Personally, I like his curmudgeonly judgments. As Dorothy Parker said, “If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.”  He makes me laugh when he calls the much-heralded genre of Adventure Memoir, “stunt and ordeal books,” and points to such unworthy examples as “Skiing Down Everest” and “Survive! 116 Days in a Rubber Dinghy.”

Still Theroux himself is not above adapting the Adventure Memoir formula to his less strenuous travels. The formula is simple: The desire line is stated in the beginning as the stunt to be achieved or difficult destination to be attained. Theroux begins his books by stating at the beginning his ultimate destination, say the southernmost tip of the Americas in Old Patagonian Express and the stunt, to get there entirely by rail. Once his goal is established, we are lured to chug along towards it with him. His desire to reach Patagonia is not the core of his work, though; it only provides a frame, and his structure is quite episodic; each chapter dealing with a different country through which he passes (or province in the case of Riding the Iron Rooster, by Train through China.) The ever-moving trains, however, create a dramatic tension of time always running out. Can he have the right encounters, see the right locations, find the right sense impressions, details and signifiers to reveal the heart of a country before it is too late and he has been delivered to the next?

In the right hands, the adventure/stunt travel memoir transcends its formula, as in the bestselling adventure memoir by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air. Krakauer sets up at the beginning the goal: for the team to win a climbing race to the top of Everest, both difficult destination and stunt, and through the use of narrative devices, scenes, dialog, character arcs, and dramatic structure, he pushes his adventure/disaster memoir into the complex territory of the adventure novel.

In my attempt to be brief, however, I’m going to fly over all else I originally wrote about travel adventure and land in a territory that is as old as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale and as newly successful as Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed, Wild. The protagonist-narrator begins with a broken heart and travels in search of being healed by a new form of love. It is a Grail Quest in which the physical journey and dramatic structure are one and the same. It begins with the protagonist/knight called to the heroic quest because the kingdom is sick and dying, a wasteland. So the knight sets out on a journey with his goal set: to find the chalice to heal the kingdom. This is travel memoir as self-therapy. Our soul is sick and we instinctively know that we must travel to renew it. Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. makes the Grail Quest analogy explicit in her travel memoir Crossing to Avalon in which, after her divorce, she sets out to visit goddess sites, the labyrinth at Chartres, the ancient remains at Glastonbury, Iona, and others in search of midlife renewal. Her realization at the end, the boon of her efforts, her symbolic feminine chalice is- Eureka!- the importance of autobiographic stories:

“If the Goddess is to return to the world as the Grail that will heal the patriarchy, if the Goddess is to come into human consciousness as an awareness of the sacred feminine in her myriad expression, if the Goddess is to emerge in time, she will do so because women and men tell what they know…a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.”

As a writer, unfortunately, Bolen forgets the small details that let us feel through the five senses what she experienced, the sand in the nostrils, the forest of blue fungi on wet boots. So let’s jump half way around the world to Australia and the late Bruce Chatwin, an author who combined Paul Theroux’s talent for dramatizing small oddities that best convey place with Bolen’s spiritual depth. Chatwin’s The Songlines is at once travelogue, memoir, anthropology, history, philosophy, science, meditation, commonplace book and novel. When asked what genre he was writing Chatwin laughed; he didn’t care. He wrote in scenes with dialog that are novelistic and develops a cast of continuing characters whose stories we follow. The desire/goal Chatwin sets up at the beginning of The Songlines is philosophic, rather than topographic, and certainly not a stunt. “My reason for coming to Australia,” he states, “was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men’s books, what a Songline was – and how it worked.”  From reading his book, we come to understand what a Songline is as he did, and by the end we realize that he has given us a Songline, an irregular, zigzag structure from one inauspicious gully to petrified tree trunk that has connected us to the spirit of the earth through story. The boon for me as reader, as for him as writer, is a concept: that the Australian aboriginals don’t have our concept of private property. You can’t buy their land for money; the land is a sacred trust from the ancestors to be preserved as it was created. A piece of land belongs to the person who knows its story. What an idea!

I want to bring it home as we jet back to the U.S.A. and I return to my half-acre of hardscrabble California land. If we lived in a world where stories rather than dollars were the currency, my friends and I would be rich!  Libraries would be our banks, and the title to a house could be followed by reading the memoirs of the people who had lived there!

As I open my gate to my yard of weed choked orange trees and roses, I am changed from reading The Songlines, my passions stirred in a way that alters my vision. As writers this is what we all hope to achieve with readers, in travel memoir as in other forms of autobiographic writing. Chatwin achieved it by doing what every hero of a story is supposed to do: follow his quest with dedication. He gave to his stated desire his senses, his memory, his classical education, his unconventional association of ideas. For what matters is not so much where you travel, but the eyes and ears, the mind and voice that you bring to the journey. What matters is that the reader can also bring home the boon, the realization, the change in your values and in you, your inner journey, whether or not it was the fulfillment of what you set up as your goal/desire in the beginning — i.e., your story.  





By Emma J. Stephens

Author of For A Dancer: The Memoir

                  I once attended a movie premiere with my friend, its director.  The success of his independent film hinged on good reviews, so I was surprised to learn that he had no intention of viewing them.  His reasoning was, “People will tell me the good ones.”  I assumed being an artist required the courage and understanding that not everyone will be a fan (which is probably why I gravitated toward subjects in school with definite answers like math), so his behavior seemed a bit fragile.  Now, after the release of my memoir, which was not just an exposure of my writing ability but also my life, I realize the damage that can be done to one’s creative spirit if their work is disliked.  This fear of disapproval is what keeps many from embarking on the vulnerable journey of self-expression.

I lack the discipline to prevent myself from looking at reviews of my book, and I also believed – (past tense!) – the assessments would help me grow as a writer.  However, I ended up more confused with each one.  Some readers claimed to be inspired and uplifted, while others called it whiny and self-indulgent.  Supporters compared it to classic literature; attackers pointed out misspellings and made accusations of dishonesty.  The nontraditional essay style was both applauded and scorched.  I wondered why were they so polarized, and which ones was I supposed to believe?

For starters, critics are interesting creatures.  Their goal is not necessarily to give helpful feedback nor to be fair, but rather to establish themselves as an expert with a believable, influential opinion.  I was slightly comforted by the discovery that my most antagonistic reviewer gave full stars to underground science fiction and vampire novels.  By that, I do not mean such interests discount one’s analysis, but it forced me to consider the unlikelihood that the same reader would be moved by my soul-bearing reflection on life.  Not everyone is on the path to self-actualization.  This begs the question why my title was chosen in the first place, but the curiosity ended there.  We cannot know the personal experiences that shape our critics’ subjective criteria, and this brought me to a place of recognition that all of the reviews are true.  Just as my story was true for me, each person has a truth of their own in response to it.

I must contradict this statement in one respect.  A particular blogger stated that my book needed more work before it was ready for publication.  This is a common prejudice in an industry ruled by gatekeepers, especially as the advancement of self-publishing (including blogs) continues to threaten that power.  Nevertheless, given the very natural human fear of inadequacy, a comment like that may have discouraged me from putting myself out there.  What a relief that I trusted myself, since unimaginable doors have opened up for me as a result.  With any luck, this will be looked back upon as my “amateur” work, and every piece will be better than the last.

So how does a writer of memoir keep it real?  How can we reconcile the conflict between inspiring versus provoking our audience?  I think it was clarified beautifully by Joan Didion in her celebrated essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she asserts the purpose of writing:

“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

If you can fulfill that, the message of your story will find those who need to hear it.


Jonah Lehrer vs James Frey

In her Aug. 13 blog “The Ethics of Being a Nonfiction Writer” author Diana Raab explores the confusing, shifting and disappearing boundaries between fact and fiction in the scandals of Jonah Lehrer and James Frey.  This blog is in dialog with hers.

I, too, am troubled by the discrediting of James Frey and more recently Jonah Lehrer, authors exposed as liars when it was uncovered that they misrepresented events in Frey’s case and quotes in Lehrer’s that never existed.  I’m not a fan of either Frey or Lehrer, but not for the reasons they were discredited.  I find the work of both men inauthentic in the deepest sense, so I have no desire to defend them.  But I am concerned by the discourse about them: lumping of all nonfiction, as different as journalism and memoir, in the same basket.

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works was ostensibly writing journalism.  He wasn’t trained as a journalist, but as a recent hire for the New Yorker he was expected to understand journalistic standards of verification. I frankly don’t care if somebody makes up a quote or changes around dates in a memoir to improve the narrative.  I do care if I think I am reading a work of journalism, and Lehrer’s attributing a quote to Bob Dylan that Dylan never said, and then lying about it is beyond sloppy journalism. Yet I am equally troubled by a kind of lie that runs through all Jonah Lehrer’s books, yet is considered acceptable (except in academic circles): he presents as original to himself the insights and life’s work of other authors.  He does not have the respect for other people and their contributions to acknowledge them as sources. For me leaving out sources is as much as an offense as making them up.

As I wrote in Your Life as Story, memoirists should not be held to journalistic standards of verification, so for me the treatment of James Frey as a pariah because he exaggerated and invented in a memoir is troubling in a different way.  Frey made up events that never happened.  Oprah was taken in, which made her mad, and the public, her choir, was taken in with her, and so a sledgehammer came down on all memoir. Certainly, Frey is not the first memoirist to exagerrate and and self-dramatize.  If this is a way to create the “objective correlative” to an emotional truth, I can accept that.  The problem for me was that Frey, an alcoholic, was still lying to himself and giving it to us as if it were the emotional truth.  I could not read more than the first chapter without feeling it was a con job, but then I am a close reader of literary texts and have been doing it for forty years.  When the forged Hitler diaries were published, I could tell immediately by textual clues that they were fake, but that is because I have done close readings of thousands of authentic diaries.

I will leave the question of lying journalists to journalism experts; as for memoirists I believe what matters is what Anais Nin called “the donee,” the writer’s contract with the reader. Are you writing an autobiographical novel or a single slice memoir capturing a particular place and moment in history?  The expectations for each in terms of verifiable facts are different. (You will find a full list of the subgenres of memoir with examples of each in Your Life as Story and a partial list on this website.)

Once you understand the expectations of your genre and subgenre, and you have been honest with yourself about how factual you have been, and communicated that to your reader in a “note to the reader” or within the work, I think you will have addressed the ethical concerns of memoir. There are readers who will choose not to read a memoir that is not completely factual; there are other readers who want the authenticity of a story that is as true as you can make it, while serving the demands of dramatic interest.  An informed reader can make a choice and will not feel conned.


Guest Blog on How Are You Different after Completing a Memoir

Continuing on the theme of How are you different after writing a memoir, memoirist and blogger for the Huffington Post  Diana M. Raab has written a guest blog.  Thank-you, Diana!

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. This is how I feel about having written and published two memoirs. I will never be the same. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal was inspired by my bout with depression in 2001, following my cancer diagnosis. I wanted to learn about the origins of my grandmother’s suicide, which occurred when I was ten years old. I was curious about her state of mind prior to taking her life, and hoped that her journal would offer some useful information. The journey into the details of my grandmother’s story disclosed that she had a very tormented life. My research taught me that a life filled with war, loss, divorce, and ongoing misery, could lead to emotional issues such as depression and suicide.

During the writing process, I realized that the traumas of our childhoods could take decades to cause havoc on our psyche. Typically, children are very resilient. As a ten-year-old I shrugged off her death, but when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of forty-seven, and began a battle with my demons and mortality, I began to understand some of my grandmother’s torment.

The most difficult aspect of writing my memoir was figuring out how to structure the story. I must have tried six different ways before arriving at the final published version. The book’s structure evolved into a weaving of our two stories, incorporating the pages of her journal that were found in her closet forty years following her death. Ultimately, the memoirist needs to keep revising until the structure is organic to the story. It helps to have mentors or early readers who have some distance from the subject because after a while, the structure and characters may become a blur to the writer. What was interesting was that my initial structure choice was the one that was used in the published version. Sometimes our first idea is right on.

While writing my memoir, I acknowledged and consequently had to reveal some painful truths about my mother who is still alive. As much as my instinct told me to leave her out of the book, so as not to hurt her feelings, early reviewers suggested that she needed to be included because she was the link between my grandmother and me. It was a risk, but in the end I have no regrets about sharing my own emotional truths regarding my narcissistic mother, who eventually read the book and acknowledged its candor. There were no rebuttals or grudges. In fact, for the first time in my life, my mother expressed that she was proud of me for writing the book, and she admitted that my grandmother would also have been proud and honored.

An important aspect of writing memoir is to remember that we are writing about our own emotional truth, not that of others. What also helped me dig deep was being in psychotherapy for a number of years. Although the writing assisted me in making sense of my past and my grandmother’s tortuous life as an orphan during World War I, my therapist also helped me realize that I was not the cause of her death. The nature of her childhood contributed to her torment. My therapist reminded me that we are not responsible for anyone’s actions other than our own.

My second memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey did not erupt as easily. I never wanted to be identified as a cancer victim. I wanted to be considered a survivor who dealt with her cancer and then moved on with her life, dreams, and aspirations. I feared that writing my story would submerge me deeper into the pain of the mastectomy and reconstruction. The reason I ventured to write this book is because of friends and colleagues encouraged me to do so saying that it would help others. I trusted and honored their sensibilities. Once I surrendered to the idea, the book was written quickly and effortlessly. Unlike Regina’s Closet, the structure was chronological. Although it was not easy to reprocess painful moments, in the end I was proud to have written and published this book, especially after receiving many positive reviews and hearing how many women and families it helped.

In both my memoirs, I admit to having embellished some sections. For example, when describing my grandmother’s childhood home in Poland, I researched what the homes looked like during that time in history, and had to fictionalize the street. Having an appropriate setting helped set the platform for writing her story. I think memoir writers need to do this in order to write compelling stories. Even in situations when we were present, it is also sometimes difficult to remember all the details from events that occurred decades prior. Sometimes we just have to use our imagination while crafting the story. There have been instances where the writer shows the memoir to another family member or loved one who encountered the same experiences and they recall scenarios quite differently. The memoirist must acknowledge differences and remember they are writing what they remember about the story through their own eyes, no one else’s. It is the writer’s emotional truth that is most important, and embodying that truth in the writing is what will make the memoir a compelling and powerful read.

Diana Raab,