[pieces]The slick exterior adds an element of mystery. The dedication page may reveal a hint of authorial introspection, but no one can prepare what lies inside a memoir. They\’re heavy, meticulously detailed and often melodramatic. Whether a recovering addict pours his self-deprecation and newfound following of Christ onto the page, or an aging immigrant displays her tale of exile, the subject matter will always deliver.
English senior Nick Miller thinks the initial purpose of the memoir is to \”sort through your own life experiences.\” And though the writing is based solely around the author, they also reflect the times. Memoirs are woven through \”cultural history\” and \”shouldn\’t be factual,\” said Miller.
Conversely, sometimes simplicity outweighs cultural influence and speaks for itself. Ali de Groot, the associate publisher of Modern Memoirs, Inc., works with clients who are interested in creating their own memoirs. The private publishing company is based out of Amherst, Mass., and specializes in limited edition memoirs and family histories. Founded in 1994 by Kitty Axelson-Berry, Modern Memoirs, Inc., has flourished by creating close relationships with clients and shaping their visions into dream-like realities.
\”Most of the time our clients write memoirs for their families,\” said de Groot. Older generations are encouraged by members of their family and told, \”you should write your story down,\” she said. Clients have the option either to send their memoir manuscript to the company or to arrange a set of interviews where the clients interact with Modern Memoirs, Inc., staff to get their ideas and life history in ink. The process involves several areas of expertise, including editors, designers, project managers, printers, binders, etc.
\”People are paying for a great amount of attention to detail, a lot of personal contact and a very aesthetically pleasing design to match the integrity of the author,\” said de Groot. From the initial interviewing stages to sending paper swatches back and forth through the mail, choosing a cover design, editing the memoir and finally binding it, the cost can be intimidating. On average, from start to finish, de Groot estimated the total for \”full services\” to be about $50,000. This is assuming the client orders 200 books at 200 pages each, hard-bound and in an off-set (longer lasting, finer) print. But if you handle writing and editing the manuscript yourself, the amount for design and formatting is averaged at $25,000.
Creating memoirs for family is much different than producing them for a mass audience. \”For family you don\’t need to embellish anything. There\’s no necessity to make the personal memoir sound more exaggerated or more fascinating. The really understated [memoirs] are the best,\” said de Groot. The vast sea of people interested in reading memoirs isn\’t all genealogically connected however. There isn\’t necessarily shared blood among avid memoir readers, and their backgrounds differ enormously.
The memoir is a unique breed of literary discourse; it rejects the rigid format of an autobiography while still fulfilling the self-reflective quality with more creative bravado. It isn\’t necessarily in chronological order and it isn\’t pointedly true. The writer has the power to meander creatively off-course into uncharted, unlived areas solely in the name of creating a palatable work of prose. Although some may struggle with the idea of feeling \”cheated\” or \”betrayed\” by the script, the reader must know what\’s to come before diving into the fragmented world of a memoir.
According to English professor Marcia Aldrich, there are \”plenty of commonalities between writer and reader.\” The genre of introspective writing, as Aldrich suggests, spurs the curiosity of the reader into interlacing his or her life with the author\’s.
Perhaps the reason the memoir is so fascinating and even controversial lies in an elemental downfall of metaphysical humanity: truth is fluid, fragmented and gets created anew over and over. Traces of memory become scattered through the transit of everyday life, concepts transform through the years and become embellished and moments in time float anonymously, losing the exact time or place. But when exaggeration is excessive and the writer takes daring liberty in formulating his or her life story, the ethical reasoning becomes blurred. The truth in memoir writing is a slippery slope, so where should the line be drawn?
\”[Memoirs] are important for people to read so that they can explore themselves,\” said Aldrich. Perhaps human trials aren\’t much different. The variables, locations and people may be dissimilar, but the coalescence of ideas may be universal. All people struggle and memoirs seem to be the perfect signifier.
Though they can be seen as an outlet or emotional refuge, memoirs are also a pivotal step in self-renewal and deep inner scrutiny. \”I don\’t think writing a memoir is therapeutic, I think it actually creates issues for writers,\” said Aldrich. And since the memoir is a specific genre of writing, Aldrich facilitates its literary cogency. \”They\’re literary renderings of writer\’s experience; it is most akin to an autobiographical fiction,\” said Aldrich.
But the question of subjectivity must interject. Is it possible for an author to recreate memories without distorting them in the first place? The question of whether or not embellishments or alterations of history are ethical practices naturally rises to the surface. Recent controversy surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s acclaimed book club author James Frey and his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, has been staring literary ethics in the eye.
The Ethics of a Memoir
James Frey has pocketed and will continue to earn millions of dollars from his autobiographical memoir that has since been exposed by the popular ball-busting Web site, TheSmokingGun.com. His story is one of debauchery and has been questioned as being a tale of lies. But all the controversy surrounding the book raises the ethical question of whether it really matters. \”I completely disagree with all of the negative media that been thrown his [Frey\’s] way,\” said business senior Rachel Ruthven.
According to Merriam-Webster, a memoir is an account of something noteworthy. This ambiguous definition leaves questions unanswered but may open a literary backdoor for Frey\’s argument. An account doesn\’t necessarily have to be truthful – judging by the highly exaggerated and epically decadent \”accounts\” heard from friends, family and Bill Clinton. And although there is an expected leeway in storytelling allowing said teller to embellish, gracefully, in order to captivate the audience, these stories have the potential to become overdone. When aesthetics are stripped and all that remains are bare formalities of context and composition, readers are realizing that people enjoy portraying their lives as monumental points of interest. In Frey\’s case, he chooses to expand the truth to create his obstinate persona.
But Ruthven maintains her backing of the memoir. \”I don\’t feel betrayed at all,\” she said.
Maybe the backlash is based on the idea that people feel cheated because they can no longer hold Frey\’s work as a piece of hard-and-fast non-fiction. There isn\’t a relatable centerpiece to examine and compare oneself to; the idea that these certain circumstances happened in a particular order and place in time is now a known fallacy and people feel betrayed. Readers who devoted their time to digest all those little pieces in print are now facing textual indigestion. But while some readers are feeling nauseous, Aldrich believes the memoir as a literary genre embodies authorial supremacy.
\”There is quarrelling over accounts – what\’s true and what\’s not,\” said Aldrich. And when questioned on subjectivity of memoir writing, Aldrich claimed, \”all memoirists create the dialogue.\”
Whether or not readers feel deceived by memoirs taking slight turns of truth, the battle of ethics in writing will remain an issue for years to come.
Like Narcissus, who drowned staring at his own image, Frey\’s self-aggrandizing, self-told tale may leave his credibility sinking but at least his story will stay afloat in the minds of millions of readers. As Miller said, \”We all want to make something that outlasts us.”

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