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Friday, January 05, 2007

Frey's Effects on My Daughter

My daughter's sixth-grade class has been writing memoirs. My daughter has been protesting for weeks that she is only 11, that nothing satisfies her teacher's demand for a "life-changing" event. At home, we've considered her first break-up with a boy (Did it make her think differently about boys, love, disappointment?); she didn't think it was that big of a deal and, besides, her writing partner is a boy she currently likes. It would be too embarrassing a topic.

Next, she wanted to write about moving from Massachusetts. I nixed that because she was making it sound as if she grew up in Massachusetts instead of just spending the summer there while we had our house in our home state renovated. "No!" I said to her "You're misrepresenting the facts." I suggested different angles on how the displacement for seven months (involving three moves and four storage units) might have affected her life. She sounded OK with one.

On the morning the body of the memoir was due, she presented me with a copy. It was a very readable piece about how she had life-threatening, suicide-attempt-causing anorexia when she was 8. I believe I let out an inarticulate shriek.

"I know it's not what happened," she said serenely, "but this story came together and none of the others did."

"You can't do that!" I said, continuing to hurriedly put her lunch in her backpack, sign and stow her homework notebook, pull my coat on, and grab my keys. "If it's a memoir, you can't turn in fiction. I have to talk to your teacher and let her know this isn't true."

In the car, I told her that writers can't palm off untrue stories as real. "But look at A Million Little Pieces," she said. "That guy made millions of dollars." Curse James Frey! Trying to show it's not just about money, I pointed out that he also got embarrassed in front of millions on Oprah, had to print an apology in his books, and is in trouble with publishers in general.

The discussion--and I'll confess that I was pretty heated in pressing the point--continued after school as I drove my daughter and high school freshman son 45 minutes to an archery lesson. I told my daughter that her teacher had e-mailed me a response after I left a message about Nora's faux life. (Nora doesn't seem to be the only middle-schooler who fictionalized a life.)

Much wailing ensued. I had ruined her life! She would flunk English! I told her firmly that she had chosen what she wrote; therefore, she was responsible for whatever dire consquences rained down on her.

How many people have exaggerated or embellished because they thought an agent or editor would demand something more "exciting"?

Researching Your Memoir
I tried again to think of incidents that held drama and long-term significance. "What about the time you and Dad got stung in the water by a jellyfish? It made you afraid of the ocean--isn't that a life change?"

She protested that the teacher wanted details and she didn't remember anything about that time. I could barely believe it. The kids had chanted a line about it--"Dad ripped the tentacles off his arm"--thousands of times because it grossed me out so much.

She gave me the perfect setup to talking about research for memoirs. She could talk with her father, who was with her, and her brother, who had come fishing with me, about what the day was like, what order things happened in. She could check the records to see what the weather had been like that day in Boca Raton. I probably wrote about it in my diary.

She could include details about the kinds of things she imagined about to harm her--like the man-o-war jellyfish. Just because it's a memoir doesn't mean you can't educate the reader about all sorts of things!

And once she focused on the jellyfish incident, I bet that she would be surprised at how much she remembered. As we spoke, details were bubbling up for me and my son--blue bits in the sand, the lifeguard helping, etc.

We didn't resolve what she would write. The next day brought another e-mail from her teacher telling me she had talked about ethics in class and my daughter had approached her after class for help. "Ethics begins in middle school," the teacher wrote in part.

Yeah. I just hope they stick so that my daughter--my own flesh and blood!--doesn't take the lazy way out when it comes to memoir.


Blogger Joanne said...

Loved this. An interesting angle!

8:53 AM  

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