Memoirs, Truth, Opinion

by Rebecca Robins

The New York Times mentioned recently that a slight brouhaha was brewing. After Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, a memoir of her life following the death of her husband of many years, came out, Julian Barnes complained that it was “a breach of narrative promise” for her not to reveal that she’d remarried a little over a year after her first husband’s death.

Ms. Oates, in response, said the book was meant to be about the immediate experience of widowhood, but suggested in future editions, she might add an appendix to bring her story up to date.

Her editor, in response to them both, said Ms. Oates’ memoir was about losing her first husband and her second marriage was inappropriate information because it ruined the integrity of the experience she described.

One book, three opinions, and it got me to thinking about how one chooses what to include in a memoir, and what it means ‘to tell the truth,” something I often say to writers.

What I’ve always meant by that is pretty simple -- you have a choice about what you want to write, but once you make that choice, tell the truth about it if you want your work to have integrity. There is the expression: warts, and all. You get to choose the wart, but once you have that wart on the page, it’s your responsibility to tell the truth about it.

Now I’m pretty sure, given Ms. Oates, that whatever she wrote about her immediate experience was as close to the truth as she was going to get. I am also pretty sure that if she had sifted how she felt immediately after the death of her husband through the filter of her future marriage, it would have distorted the truth of the experience lived. She would have been looking back through a future knowledge she didn’t have when she lived those moments.

But I’m also pretty sure that Mr. Barnes, short listed multiple times for the Man Booker prize, and quite the heavy weight novelist, felt the novelist’s burden to tidy up the story. Even if only the frame he wanted it presented in. But, and this is important, that wasn’t the story Ms. Oates chose to tell.

Just as you have a choice.

If Ms. Oates deprived the world of Mr. Barnes’ narrative promise by her choices, that only meant the world would be in for the satisfaction of a turn of events separate from the text and a little farther down the line -- what, already remarried? -- which, if you think about it, approximates more closely for the reader the sequential experience of the two separate events: widowhood and remarriage.

It really is your story. You get to choose.