Previous posts in this discussion:
PostHonesty and Memoir Writing (Robert Whealey, USA, 08/12/17 7:09 am)
As a historian I am 100% honest in all of the draft chapters of my memoirs, except my chapter on Michael Dukakis whom I know personally. In this draft chapter I use pseudonyms for five or six people whom we both know.
I could begin by sending a three-page table of contents. People on the WAIS Forum can reply to me chapter by chapter. Or delete the table of contents, if they are not interested in history or my opinions.
JE comments: It's hard to argue with that logic, Robert! But WAISers will certainly be interested in the chapters of your life; please send. What a challenging exercise: structuring your life into a table of contents.
Memoir Writing: "KGB's Poison Factory Ten Years On"
(Boris Volodarsky, Austria
08/13/17 7:40 AM)
Regarding memoir writing--I am finishing a book under a working title Assassins: The KGB's Poison Factory Ten Year On, hopefully to be published in London in November 2018. Partly, these are memoirs of my meetings and contacts with many known people including Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Maya Plisetskaya, Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Nikolai Khokhlov, Oleg Gordievsky and others. I believe in his or her memoirs one must by all means be honest though still remembering the old adage "truth, nothing but the truth but not the whole truth."
There's one more element that I believe is absolutely essential--good memoirs must be well written. At the moment I finish reading memoirs of my favourite British writer Frederick Forsyth, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015). After 17 novels--all of them international bestsellers--and two non-fiction books, Forsyth claims it is his last. I absolutely believe The Outsider is his true memoir and it is written as brilliantly as all his novels. As the Spectator reviewer has put it, "He has an almost mesmeric ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages." Forsyth indeed is a magnificent storyteller and if a person is writing or contemplating to write memoirs and is not a historical figure like, for example, Mahatma Gandhi or Winston Churchill, to my mind his memoirs must be interesting to read in order for them to survive the writer.
In my field of professional research I have read memoirs of rather many Soviet defectors written at different times and in different countries, and must say that all of them without exception are self-serving, full of lies, exaggerations and propaganda. Not to mention they are usually written by ghost-writers provided by Western services. One such ghost-writer has recently called me checking details of a well-known defector who is still alive but whose obituary he has already been commissioned to prepare. There's of course a Latin phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("Of the dead, nothing unless good") coined by Chilon of Sparta circa 600 BC, but in this particular case I preferred a different approach. Ironically, obituaries are often based on memoirs...
JE comments: There's a paradox here. Can the memoirist be both honest and entertaining? Most of our lives are so mundane that we need to spice things up to make our stories page-turning. (Boris Volodarsky is an exception of course.)
Best of luck in your latest writing endeavor, Boris! Please keep us updated as the publication date nears.
Truth and Memoir-Writing: Harper Lee and Truman Capote; from Gary Moore
(John Eipper, USA
08/16/17 2:38 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
My thanks to Boris Volodarsky (August 13) for his insistence on honesty in writing memoirs,
while pointing out that discretion, not mendacity, should provide the wiggle room
that protects confidences ("not the whole truth," as Boris mused). Nobody ever tells the
whole truth, since selectivity is the essence of perception. But obviously, the omission process
can become mendacious, too. The difference is in an imponderable: the writer's will to truth.
It would seem that to say memoirs have special exemption for tall tales is to cheapen the
genre--and to cheapen discourse generally. If you say it's true and you know it's not, then
the biggest message is that you're a liar, overtowering your overt messages, and raising
the question of how much any of it should be believed. But to me a larger mystery is
in Boris's further note about author Frederick Forsyth, and his "almost mesmeric ability
to compel the reader to keep turning the pages." Here I beg to differ a bit, as to whether
the page-turning magic is necessarily a sign of good writing. Without doubt it often is.
But just as many times the hot page-turners seem to display unfortunate writing--in
terms of syntax, logic, sloppiness, redundancy, or what have you. It would seem that
the mystery is one of connecting with the audience--even if the connector despises the
audience and is cynically manipulating them. Who can characterize this magic? Is it a gift,
like perfect pitch? Is it often a mere matter of mechanical formula? I don't think it's exactly
passion--but perhaps is the effective appearance of passion, and the knowledge of what
Take a look at To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the blockbusters of its century--in large part because it so perfectly compressed the passions of its age. Its page-turning magic
seems almost like a liquid presence, and--to return to my original theme--this quality remains as
the largest suggestion that the master page-turner himself, and not Harper Lee, had an unseen
part in the book's gestation.
Mendacity seems never to have been much of an issue for Truman Capote, as he rode so
deeply immersed in the intoxicating magic of being able to connect. Mendacity--or well-meaning
sentiment--also distorted the real nature of the real-world events in south Alabama that were
ostensibly enshrined in To Kill a Mockingbird's fiction. But the resulting message was perfectly
attuned to nagging questions deep within a waiting audience, providing answers and images
they perhaps didn't even know they yearned for. The overall evidence says that, yes, Nelle Harper
Lee of Monroeville, Alabama ("Maycomb" in the book) really did write this masterpiece of childhood
memoir (few fans thought of it as fiction), and that it was not written by her childhood friend, later
colleague and sometime manipulator Truman Capote (Lee reportedly thought she was going to get
a collaborator credit on In Cold Blood). But whoever was behind it, the intoxicating magic was distilled
in full force--by its very power deepening the mystery.
(Careful, this reference too, turns out to be a descent into fiction--fenced off from mendacity only by sentiment.)
JE comments: The NYT classifies Greg Neri's fictional account of the Lee-Capote childhood bond, Tru & Nelle, as "middle grade." Talk about faint praise. Has anyone in WAISworld read it? What a coincidence that two of the South's absolute greatest authors would hail from the same small Alabama town.
- Truth and Memoir-Writing: Harper Lee and Truman Capote; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 08/16/17 2:38 AM)