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 creatively rendered memoirs—a sub-genre of the diverse and expansive genre we typically call creative nonfiction, or “essay.” Between the 1940s and 1990s, the number of books published under this category tripled; more recently, the Neilson Bookscan reports a recorded 400% increase in the number of memoirs published between 2004 and today, with many of these soon thereafter adapted into award-winning, feel good Blockbusters. What does this mean? It means, in part, that the form is considered both artful and necessary, that experiences once deemed so humiliating or painful that people worked to hide them are now so remunerative that some writers even make them up. But where do we draw the line between what is fiction and what is fact, what is real and what is imagined, what happened in our lives with what might happen on the page? In this class, we’ll study some of the most innovative, genre-defying examples of the form, works that tackle and engage ideas of creative liberty, self-expression, and exaggeration in pursuit of better art, including texts by Joan Didion, John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, Kerry Howley, Sonali Deraniyagala, Dave Eggers, Lauren Slater, James Frey, and Alison Bechdel. 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. And perhaps most importantly, we’ll test our theories and the genre’s limitations through creative exercises that help us hone in on why the genre can feel so tricky. In short, we’ll talk quite a bit about truth, identity, and veracity in art, then we’ll throw our own stories at the wall to see what, and how, they stick.

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