Write (Now) Newsletter – March 2006

Write (Now) Newsletter – March 2006

“Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”
                                                                                          – David Ben Gurion

Hi Writers:

I’ve made a pact with myself to stop lying, at least in my writing.

In November of 2005, I attended the 412 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Pittsburgh. Mary Karr, author of the best-seller memoir, The Liar’s Club, warned us in her deep Texas drawl, “Don’t make shit up.” Dressed in red suede boots with black leather bows on the sides and a red velvet dress with an empire waist, Karr looked like more like a five-year old than the Guggenheim award-winning University of Syracuse Professor that she is.

Karr lectured on the history of memoir and the inherent difficulties of the form. To every question about these problems, she responded, “Don’t make shit up.”

“What about dialogue?” folks in the audience asked. “What if you weren’t there?” and “How can you remember everything that happened?” and on and on and on.

Karr repeated herself, “Just don’t make shit up.” She said it until it became humorous.

When the questions continued, she finally shouted, “Listen! You can write any fucking thing you want. But if you’re gonna call it nonfiction, get as close to the fucking truth as you possibly can and just don’t make shit up!”

I took Karr’s words to heart and began combing my 50,000 word memoir manuscript for stuff I’d made up. It wasn’t that I had outright lied, I just didn’t remember. And I wanted to tell the truth.

A few months later, the world found out that, yes virginia, people do make shit up when the blog thesmokinggun.com exposed best-selling, Oprah endorsed author, James Frey, of A Million Little Pieces fame. Frey had made shit up.

I’m not passing on Frey’s talent as a writer. I tried to read the book and found it too angry, too unbelievable, too forced. I stopped about twenty pages in. And I don’t think Frey’s a bad man. Rather, he’s a man who did what he thought he had to do to stay afloat in a mean business. He tried to sell AMLP as a novel. When his story didn’t sell as fiction, someone asked him, “Is it true?” and WHAMMO, suddenly everyone wanted to read it. But it was a story. Bits of his life with some made up. He was trying to make a living and the truth came out.

In writing my nonfiction book, I’m doing my best not to make shit up. But I don’t know, for instance, whether the $125 bathing suit my mother inventoried in 1989 was at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Palm Springs or Las Vegas. And I don’t recall if she said it was $125 or $150 and really, I don’t know whether it was 1989 or 1991 either. Fortunately, my book doesn’t turn on these details.

What I do know is that the last summer of his life, my father and I played golf and that I learned more about him and myself that summer than I had known the entire thirty-three years before. And I know that I was a mess. Not a pretty mess or a tough mess, just a plain friggin’ mess. And I know that we both did our best. That’s where my story turns.

I do my best to write those truths down and I do my best to make Mary Karr proud of me and damnit, I don’t make shit up!

Nita(Do you smell gunpowder?)Sweeney

© 2006 by Nita Sweeney