Book Review: “Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life”

Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May, is a collection of fourteen essays by people who dance in the no-man’s-land between History and Memoir. The fictional character Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” and this collection is like that. Some are going to be truffleicious and some are going to turn out to be that weird fake cherry cordial flavor.

Contributors include Andre Aciman, Matt Becker, June Cross, Carlos Eire, Helen Epstein, Samuel G Freedman, Patricia Hampl, Fenton Johnson, Alice Kaplan, Annette Kobak, Michael MacDonald, Elaine Tyler May, Cheri Register, and D. J. Waldie. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the author’s memoir, followed by an essay musing on some aspect of writing creative nonfiction. This makes Tell Me True a useful sampler to guide your memoir reading list: if you like the flavor of the excerpt, make a mental note to get the book.

The book came about as a result of a 2007 University of Minnesota conference called ‘Who’s Got the Story–Memoir as History/History as Memoir.’ As a collection, it is necessarily uneven–just as somewhere there’s somebody who goes through the Whitman’s box hoping to find the cherry cordial, somebody is going to love essays in Tell Me True that left me cold. I found myself most drawn to the chapters by the editors of the book, memoirist Patricia Hampl and American Studies professor Elaine Tyler May, and chapters by Cheri Register and Helen Epstein.

Here are some nuggets (or nougats, to flog my metaphor):

Helen Epstein, “Coming to Memoir as a Journalist,” with an excerpt from Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History:

“We journalists did not traffic in useless, self-indulgent fantasy. We did research, made acute observations, investigated records, asked probing questions, got the facts. After this proactive work, in the writing itself, we were to erase all trace of ourselves… But I couldn’t remain impervious to the counterculture and new political movements of the 1960s….I realized that the objective journalism I had so idealistically and naively embraced was in fact riddled with prejudice about what was fit to print…. I was becoming aware that we all perceive events–public and private–through the double prism of our culture and personal experiences, and it resonates in multiple echo chambers of memory. Unlike journalism, which demands that reporters ignore or subsume that subjective reality, memoir encourages writers to plumb it.”

Patricia Hampl: “You’re History,” with an excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter:

“I finally understood my job as the classically writerly one–to be an observer–not only of what I saw, but of what I was thinking….”

“You write the books that won’t go away until they’re written.”

Elaine Tyler May, a historian by training, mines court records and other public documents to find mini-memoirs which she compiles into social histories. Her feminist perspective informs  “Confessions of a Memoir  Thief,” paired with an excerpt from Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. 

“History and memory are both interpretive arts. Both genres use carefully selected fragments of the past–memories, documents, events–to tell a story. … Both [historians and memoirists] write creative nonfiction… but the two genres diverge around viewpoint. Memoir is expressed in the first person, showing a particular life in a particular context. History is told in the third person, generalizing from many particular stories in an attempt to crate a larger narrative about change over time.”

“I have built my career on the memoirs of others.”

Cheri Register: “Memoir Matters,” with an excerpt from Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir:

“Without deliberate attention to context, memoir can indeed fail to convey much meaning. What would Angela’s Ashes be without the crowded lanes of Limerick, or The Liar’s Club without the Texas Gulf Coast oil rigs? … the surest way for memoirists to win readers’ interest and empathy is to locate their personal stories in a public space.”

If these essays/authors have anything in common, it is a theme of American individualism versus our longing for connection–a sense that when we share our individual stories in the genre of memoir, we generate feelings of connection across vast differences in time, geography, and life experience. Indeed, the rising interest in memoir occurred more or less in sync with the decline of social connection (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone etc.)

At the end of the day, Tell Me True falls short of delivering an experience like I imagine attending the original U. of Minnesota conference was. I so badly wanted to raise my hand, chime in, or at least hear Q&A between the audience and the panelists.

Reading one essay after the other was too much like eating a whole box of chocolates. Tell Me True would work splendidly as a text for a memoir writers’ discussion group. Each bon bon was tasty; each left me eager for more, but hungrier still for connection with other memoir writers with whom to discuss it.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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