Readings in Truthiness

“This is my tale, and I have written it over and over again, and, depending on my mood or my auras, the story always seems to change, and yet it always seems true. Perhaps that means it is all false, except that, every time, the words bear witness, and every time I feel love, and then, with a simple snap of an eye, the clock of a closing shutter, the tree is gone, the love is gone, the man is gone, the words are gone, Christopher is gone, and I am standing in space, my brain split, my hands held out. If only I could learn to live here, in the chasm he cut, in the void out of which our world was born, if only I could. I can.” 

Lauren Slater

Once upon a time, long before the Age of Oprah, writers who had lived through something fascinating or terrible or both would turn their experiences into fiction. Nowadays, however, these stories equally take the form of memoir—a sub-genre of the diverse and expansive genre we typically call creative nonfiction. Between the 1940s and 1990s, for example, the number of books published as memoir tripled; more recently, the Neilson Bookscan reports a recorded 400% increase in the number of memoirs published between 2004 and today, and many of these are soon thereafter developed into summer Blockbuster movies. What does this mean? It means, in part, that the form is increasingly considered both artful and necessary; experiences once deemed so humiliating or painful that people hid them are now so remunerative that some writers make them up. But what is a memoir, how does it function, and how is it differentiated from autobiography and simple recollection? In this class, we’ll study the form and read a wide variety of contemporary and popular examples—including the memoirs of Joan Didion, Sonali Deraniyagala, David Eggers, Lauren Slater, James Frey, and Alison Bechdel—and discuss the primary elements that comprise a memoir and the difficulty of “truthiness.” But perhaps more importantly, we’ll work daily to engage and understand the idea that memoir is less interested in the past than it is the act of remembering and the ways past selves continue to inform who we are in the present. We will, in short, talk quite a bit about truth, identity, and veracity in art.

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