Tackling Memoir: Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

It’s a myth that writers write what they know, we write what it is that we need to know.

 -Marcie Hershman


1. a person who writes memoirs.

At first glance, it would seem that writing a memoir would be simple. I am, after all, filled with memories, some conscious and others not so much. Sometimes buried memories surface, like so many spirits on the Day of the Dead, with just a whiff of a scent. Or a taste.  Proust’s famous fixation on his madeleines comes to mind.

My Proustian moment came while I pawed through boxes of mildewed letters written over the years when I lived in Honduras. Handwritten on onionskin paper to save on prohibitive airmail postage costs, molecules of blue or black ink fading into the gibberish of hieroglyphics, these passports to my past signaled an SOS.

“Save us!” Before the mold destroys the faint script or the acid paper dissolves the words.

Or before the dimness of memory hijacks the so-called reliable narrator still living inside my head.

Some say that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator when it comes to memoirs. Perhaps that is so. But I believe it’s necessary to strive for that reliability. Otherwise, I’d be no better than the biggest sinners in the genre. James Frey comes to mind here. As does Lee Israel. And let’s not skip Vladimir Nabokov. I’d even add Elizabeth Gilbert’s narrator in Eat, Pray, Love to any list of unreliable narrators.

Life is not that idyllic.

About reliability, Vivian Gornick says “To state the case briefly, 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.”

A memoirist, then, strives to appear to be reliable, evoking trust in the reader, even if it’s necessary to embellish things a bit to push the story forward.

Everyone has stories to tell. The stumbling block seems to be surpassing the “Who cares?” hurdle. Better yet, WHY should anyone care?

That’s the challenge right now.


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