Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 542: Creative Non-Fiction: Memoir and Truth-Telling

Instructor: Kimi Faxon

Course Books

The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can't fool around. If you write about someone else you can stretch the truth from here to Finland. If you write about yourself, the slightest deviation makes you realize instantly that there may be honor among thieves, but you are just a dirty liar.
~Groucho Marx

"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
~Tim O'Brien

Where does history end and storytelling begin? How do we distinguish truth from "essential truth" and what's the difference between poetic license and a big fat lie? Oprah and James Frey might have more people asking these questions today, and perhaps rightfully so, as they point to the heart of the debate about the contemporary memoir.

In this course, we will read works that grapple with the notion of truth-telling, essential or emotional truths to get at the "real story". In our discussions, we will explore how authors compose their lives, construct an identity-and create a somewhat coherent self often against enormous personal, societal, and cultural obstacles. More specifically, we will attempt to understand how memory and imagination, and fact and invention intersect in the act of creating a self, and of engaging in a meaningful and/or complicated relationship with the past-a past that inevitably weaves itself into the present. We will split our time between workshops of student work and the discussion of published texts. As we read with a writer's attention to style and technique, we will endeavor to ask questions that are essential to crafting real-life material: How much do we trust the narrator and why do we care? How do we decide what to put in and what to leave out? What do we consider risky, either personally or technically? How is memory constructed on the page and how does forgetting fit in? What's the difference between invention and lying? What responsibility do we have to history? How does solid research and interviewing contribute to nonfiction narratives? How do our expectations as readers change when we're told something is nonfiction? How do our obligations as writers change?

Types of memoir-memoir of childhood, memoir of place, memoir of war and civil unrest, memoir of illness and recovery-will be considered as templates for student work.

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes that the true task of autobiography is the pursuit of thematic design, of pattern and order, through one's life. Similarly, James Joyce believed that "our passions make a pattern of us." My hope is that by engaging with the books on our reading list, we will hone our technical skills as well as locate the patterns in our lives and the world that have something to say about the human condition.

Last Update: February 12, 2012