In my MFA's autobiographical course, the truth of memory and how it is reconstructed in writing has been a theme throughout. Whether writing autobiographical poetry, fiction or nonfiction, it is acknowledged that by containing a memory through form we change its meaning. As adjunct professor, David Booth, put it: "Memory corrupts the thing remembered."
I have found that as I write from memory, the thing remembered initially becomes more vivid. In that associative frame of mind, more memories emerge from their cobwebby corners. However, as I develop and carve scenes through a conscious crafting of words into sentences and paragraphs, these reconstructions become distinct from what "I remember" and the line blurs. The imagery, dialog, characters, action, reflections I render - all create new meaning so that my stories take on the effect of looking at a photograph: I can no longer remember if it's the memory I recall or its representation.
Perhaps William Maxwell's narrator says it best in his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow: "What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory -- meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion -- is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling... In any case, talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw."
Maxwell isn't actually advocating for lying and calling it true. His narrator (in a fictional tale) is simply acknowledging that the retrieval process, especially when a story is spun, is not always as clean as some would have it. The line between fantasy and truth in autobiographical writing is hardly a new topic. In a 2006 expose of James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, the Smoking Gun proved Frey included "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details" and Oprah, having endorsed the book and feeling duped, put him under the microscope on her show.
The current edition of Writer's Digest continues to tackle the question: "How much can memoirists blur the line between fact and fiction?" Five literary agents responded. One said, "It has to be one hundred percent true. End of story. If you...slightly dramatize the story to make it read better, I have no problem with that. Find me someone who doesn't do that every time they tell a story at a bar."
It appears this agent is in agreement with Maxwell. Memory is changed in the telling, or writing, of it. Which isn't to say, just make stuff up and call it memoir.