Did It Really Happen That Way? The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator
If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov's Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? In this five part TriQuarterly series, five writers of nonfiction and one writer of fiction brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
In Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, the two main characters are dueling unreliable narrators. Both are narcissists who exaggerate their own strengths and exploit the other’s weaknesses; both are misleading and deceitful; both are unconscionable liars. Classic unreliable narrators, and believable ones at that. A deliberate choice of course by the author And, in my opinion, a big reason why the novel worked.
A lifelong reader of novels and short stories who borrows what he can from good fiction writers, I have no objection to the larger-than-life behavior of Flynn’s incompatible narrators. Their actions, abhorrent as they are, reveal them to be dreadful people, while at the same time that very behavior humanizes them.
I’m a memoirist by trade. And so different rules seem to apply. Because according to certain reviewers, critics, media flaks, and readers, there’s simply no place in the genre for unreliable narrators. Witness the James Frey–Oprah flap, the spate of false Holocaust memoirs, and recent episodes of plagiarized journalism—you know, the usual suspects.
But those aren’t literary works. Besides, it’s not the only way to look at this matter.
We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand.
-C. S. Lewis
In most forms of literary journalism and news reporting, there’s an unspoken contract/agreement between writer and reader—a promise, an expectation that the research and reportage is reliable, factual, accurate. This is also the case in personal narratives like family histories, reminiscences, and remembrances, some of which include research and interviews.
In both instances (journalism and straightforward personal narrative), we take for granted that the writer is the putative “I.” And though these are consciously constructed texts—and, let’s be honest, somewhat embellished texts—still we assume that the narrator’s intent is to render the story—its people, events, and situations—as clearly and accurately as possible.
However, often many works of creative/literary nonfiction—especially personal essays and memoirs—grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse—closer in intent, I believe, to the impulse that produces certain types of lyric poetry as well as works of prose.
A good number of memoirists are writing not so much to confess or tell their stories as to discover, hopefully, through the writing, what poets and fiction writers often describe as finding out “what we didn’t know we knew.”
“To state the case briefly,” Vivian Gornick writes, “memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. What the memoirist owes [readers] is [the attempt] . . . to persuade [them] that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”
Like Gornick and Patricia Hampl, among others, I believe that the making of a literary work, let’s say, a personal essay or a literary memoir, is a different sort of undertaking from journalism. As such, literary nonfiction ought to be judged on a different set of aesthetic and standards from those that govern other forms of nonfiction.
It’s a myth that writers write what they know, we write what it is that we need to know.
For me, Mike Steinberg—the person—the impulse for writing a memoir grows out of a sense of not knowing. Often it takes the form of an internal wrestling match, a struggle to come to terms with some nagging itch, perplexing question, persistent feeling, sense of confusion or disorientation, or a lingering personal problem. At the same time, the writer-me is aware that the experiences I’m writing about are raw materials, resources to be used selectively in the shaping of a cohesive, compelling narrative—a process that Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text.”
Here, then, is an interesting paradox: as a reader of memoir, I initially want to know, who is this “I,“ this narrator, and what does he or she want? That’s because a piece of me wants to believe that the narrator who’s guiding me is reliable, trustworthy, and honest. Yet when I’m writing a memoir, my narrator, the “I,” invariably becomes a persona, a three-dimensional self; a fully imagined character who is part me and part not me. Whoever my personas are, though, they’re the result of my having made a deliberate choice, one that I hope fits the particular narrative at hand.
A persona, I should explain, isn’t to be confused with the writer. And the decision to create a narrative persona, whether conscious or unconscious, is, to a large extent, an aesthetic choice.
Here’s a short illustration from Trading Off, a stand-alone memoir I wrote some years back. It’s a scene that describes a troubled encounter between a fifteen-year-old boy, a younger version of the adult narrator, and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.
On the first day of high school, the coach calls the boy out of homeroom. He’s desperately hoping that the coach is going to invite him to spring baseball tryouts. But when he gets to the tiny, cluttered office, the coach explains that he called him down there because a friend had told him that the boy was a trustworthy, responsible kid. So he offers him the job of assistant football manager, a humiliating duty that boils down to having to be a glorified water boy and stretcher-bearer. The boy wrestles with the decision, but in the end he takes the job, partly because he thinks it might give him an advantage at baseball tryouts.
Some four-plus decades later, I don’t recall whether this incident happened on the first day of school or sometime during the first or second week. It’s even possible that I went to the coach’s office on my own initiative. Yet I maintain that I did not invent or deliberately distort that scene. The coach unquestionably did meet with me. And when he told me I was going to be a water boy, he was standing in the middle of that tiny room wearing only a jock strap, white sweat socks, and a baseball hat.
Who could ever forget that image?
My point is that I choose particular scenes and situations largely because they serve the narrative. And in this instance, I had to rely pretty heavily on memory and imagination.
Well, then, did the young boy see and hear all of this in a single visit on a single afternoon? Or did this happen over a period of days during the first or second week of school? And would that have made a difference to the narrative? The appropriate question here is this: do those discrepancies make the adult narrator a dishonest or dissembling storyteller?
I won’t tell you the story the way it happened, I’ll tell it to you the way I remember it.
It's no secret that memory is an unreliable narrator. And we know that imagination transposes memory. But that's part of the territory—part of what makes a literary memoir, well, “literary.”
And so when I’m writing, I don’t think of my narrators as reliable or unreliable. I say that because when I wrote that essay, what interested me most was the narrator’s internal struggles to come to terms with a deeply disturbing predicament, a confusing dilemma that he couldn't, at the time, understand or interpret.
What drives this piece then, is the boy’s pressing need to make the varsity team, whatever the costs might be. More important, what links that young boy’s story with another human being’s experience is the humiliation that he, as a kid, willingly put up with in order to get a chance to play ball.
That kind of tradeoff, we know, happens all the time in real life, in the context, say, of a family dispute, a shaky marriage, a troubling friendship, a bad love affair, even something like a teacher-student disagreement. It's a common occurrence: one person desperately wants something and so is forced to compromise and make what often are unpleasant compromises.
In truth, the adult narrator is no longer that kid. What’s authentic, though, is the numbing humiliation and despair the boy was feeling in that moment. And in order to re-create his disappointment, I, the writer, had to fully imagine and recall what it felt like to be that kid in that particular situation.
Once again, the important story is the internal struggle, the story of the narrator’s thinking—his or her confusions and guilts, questions and fears, reflections and speculations. How then, I ask you, does one measure the reliability of someone’s thought process?
“Memories and memoirs can and do play us false,” writes the novelist Margaret Drabble. “Maybe,” she says, “ there is no truth. Maybe we all make everything up.”