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I Am a Liar

May 6, 2011

It’s true. I am. Or I think so. Maybe I’m not. See? Always confusion with the whole “nonfiction” thing.

I started graduate school at The New School for Social Research in Fall 2006. Liberal Studies. I didn’t enter with a clear trajectory. I chose the NSSR because it was in New York. I chose LS because it seemed a natural extension of my undergraduate studies years before, because it allowed me to take classes in sociology (my undergrad major) and in the humanities (my undergrad minor). And it required a written thesis. I had so enjoyed writing my undergrad thesis. Really, I had. I liked to write, and thought grad school would help me settle on a career that would allow me to work for/in a topic that I cared about, and that would involve some kind of writing. Basically, my MA felt like two additional years of undergrad. Show me my topic, I thought. I could temporarily ignore my seven years working in elementary school, and continue my education to figure out what I really wanted to do.

So anyway. The first class I signed up for was “Cultural Criticism.” Wicked cool class, taught by a wicked cool professor (Melissa) who was also a wicked incisive editor of our work. The first assignment was to write a memoir. Ha! I thought it had to be about childhood, since we were reading Mary McCarthy and George Orwell at the time. I told J about it, freaking out: what the hell am I going to write about? I definitely didn’t want to write about my father’s death, one of my only two childhood memories, so I emailed my sisters and asked them for details about family dinners. Why family dinners? An essay title had popped into my head—Table for Five—and I wanted to write an essay to that title. (True story.) They all kindly responded (thanks, girls!) and I used their memories to create an essay. So I guess that I lied there. Sort of. Or borrowed? I didn’t make anything up, that’s true. But I didn’t clarify in the essay which memories were mine (you know, none) and which were my sisters (all). I did set the scene in a restaurant I remembered well, so I was able to rely on my own memory for much of the essay. Melissa liked the essay, too, and asked me (via margin notes) if it was true. It was. Sort of, I guess. Not really a lie, but not really the truth as I remembered it. And I had no control over my sisters’ memories, either. The essay was true as they told me they remembered it. Convoluted, no?

A newer version of that essay now lives in my book. In this version, I state outright that I have borrowed my sister’s memories.

Then I lied again. This is much worse! Later that fall, I learned that The New School for Social Research had this magazine, an interdisciplinary publication that featured work from across the board—sociology, economics, history, political science… That year, its two editors seemed happy to accept literature as opposed to literary criticism. I decided to write about my father’s death in an essay for the magazine. I had the whole thing done in just a day. I wrote about how resistant I had been for a long time to collecting my father’s artifacts (true). About how my mother collected heaps of his artifacts (true). About how I finally learned one way to connect to those artifacts (all true). But the top of the essay felt flat. And as any writer of literary nonfiction knows, when the top feels flat, write a scene!

I once again dipped into the supple minds of my sisters. We all had the same Kindergarten teacher, and I was in K when my father died, so I wanted to create a scene that would pull readers into that world, the world I inhabited when I was six and lost my dad. I learned that our K teacher had a big deck of cards, each with a letter of the alphabet, and that she would flip through the cards each morning and we would recite the letters as they were revealed. I also learned that she would sometimes put “P” right before “U” so that we would all laugh when we read “P–U.” Having taught in a PreKindergarten classroom, I was confident I could create a scene, if thin and short, that would feel authentic, despite that I had no memory of Kindergarten save for the evening of my father’s death, and his funeral and burial.

So I did. And I liked it. I thought it was good. It made me cry as I wrote it (very, very true).

But how to convey that I lost memory? That I did not carry any of this forward? That by the time of the writing, at thirty years old, I would remember nothing of this nice little scene? Again, literary nonfiction writers will get this … I created a metaphor. By first grade, I said, my understanding of my father “collapsed in on itself and became locked in a single photograph of fuzzy image and diffused light.” (I did have this one photograph that I had previously thought was a memory. When I came across that photograph, I was heartbroken, because something about my father I thought I remembered was taken away. Sadly, true.) Maybe it was by second grade that it happened. But I don’t remember first, second, or third grade save for the afternoon our house caught fire. So it was as true as I could write while remaining another kind of true, true to what makes writing (all writing, not just nonfiction) an art: creativity, craft, imagination.

Now I had to convey why I didn’t feel connected to my father’s stuff. I wrote, “For several years after my father’s death, I didn’t understand my mother’s obsession with collecting and storing his stuff.” It seemed odd to introduce the memory loss here in this essay. But I couldn’t be sure that I felt that way for several years immediately following my father’s death since, again, I didn’t remember that time period. I DO remember sixth grade and on, and I DO remember that until I was thirty years old, I had a hard time with my father’s artifacts. All true, check check check. So I thought it would be alright so use “several years after my father’s death” as a stand-in for “all my life until now as I remember it.”

Phew. Now I was in the clear. From then on in the essay, I was writing in the present, and that was something I could take account of, for I was very much living in the present and all. Though what I wrote was, of course, still a product of creativity, craft, and imagination as is all literary writing.

My essay was accepted and published. Not as “memoir,” but as “personal history.” Besides an article I co-wrote with a teaching colleague, it was my first publication. So it was my first literary publication. The experience of writing, revising, submitting, and reading it in print, along with the advice of another great professor, Randy, who suggested that I “had a voice” and should attend the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in the summer of 2007, inspired me to reprioritize my goals. I didn’t want to find a career, a research focus, a particular topic about which I could write. I wanted to write, and the topics, I knew, would come and go, would reveal themselves, would fade, but above all, would be secondary to my commitment to the act of writing.

So there you have it. My whole new life as I know it came about because of a lie.

And yet I feel more real now than I ever did before.

I woke up thinking about all of this today because since I started this blog, I have resisted linking to that original essay. I’ve linked to others, but not that one. I suppose that I felt like it needed an explanation. Why? Because of the controversy that so often swirls around memoir? Because of the daily dip into imagination that nonfiction writers take? Because I’m the one who scanned the essay in question and uploaded it when I took over the co-editorship of the magazine and therefore feel it’s my responsibility to link to it here? Because of my belief that memory is not at all fallible, that memory works as memory works—our expectations of memory are flawed?

Whatever the reason, it’s done now, this post, this admission. And whatever the reason, I wanted to write this post before I did this: Archives of a Man.

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