Writers & Company

The art of writing memoir

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with memoir writers Vivian Gornick, Kathryn Harrison and Ferdinand Mount about the fine line between fact and fiction when writing about your own life.
From left to right: Vivian Gornick, Ferdinand Mount and Kathryn Harrison. (Mitchell Bach/Jonathan Ring/Joyce Ravid)
Listen to the full episode53:42

The saying goes that autobiography is about invention and fiction tells the truth.  But it's all a little murkier when it comes to memoir. To talk about the appeal of memoir, Eleanor Wachtel spoke to three writers who know the genre well: Vivian Gornick, Kathryn Harrison and Ferdinand Mount.

HOW MEMOIRS SEEK THE TRUTH

Kathryn Harrison: The stories that we tell ourselves are all set pieces that have been pulled out over and over again, and they change each time. The truth is not a destination, but a direction. One does one's best to point one's self in the direction of truth. 

Vivian Gornick: This word, truth, is one I never employ. I never think about it and I never use it. My idea of what a memoirist owes a reader is honesty, however that is constructed. The reader must feel that the narrator, the memoirist, is trying to get to the bottom of the experience that one is writing about, whatever that experience is. The truth seeker — that's how I think of the duty of the memoirist. The truth of one's self. The truth of what one is trying to understand, puzzle out. It doesn't have to do with factual memories.

HOW WRITING A MEMOIR IS LIKE WRITING A HISTORICAL NOVEL

Ferdinand Mount: Writing a memoir is oddly like writing a historical novel, where you must not put in anything you know to be untrue, but you have a skeleton of fact as far as you can get it right but apart from that you build and colour and decorate, whether consciously or unconsciously. But there has to be a basic substratum of truth, as best as you can recall it.

HOW TO WRITE A GOOD MEMOIR

Ferdinand Mount: You aren't trying to tell a story — "Then I passed my exam, then I got a job," — you are trying to dwell upon the bits of your life that seem worth dwelling upon, and the people and the moments that seem worth recreating for the reader.

Vivian Gornick: Nothing should be made up, but you are composing a question. You are making use of these memories in order to write about what you want to write about.

Kathryn Harrison: Memoir exists to break through that pretty surface, to go under it and find out what is beneath the face you prefer to show the world. I think that's apparent when you read a book and that's the honest intent. That's something you can feel.

Vivian Gornick is a New York-based critic, journalist and essayist. Her most recent book is The Odd Woman and the City. 

Kathryn Harrison is the author of several novels and works of nonfiction. Her most recent book, the memoir True Crimes, was published in 2016.

​Ferdinand Mount is a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He has published several novels and works of nonfiction. His memoir, Cold Cream, was published in 2008.

The panellists' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the episode: ​"Nothing Really Blue," composed by Simon Jeffes, performed by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.