Can you measure the truth of a memoir?

Author Ben Yagoda sets up a "how-to" guide for determining a memoir's "truthy aspects."

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    Ben Yagoda says he's got problems with memoirs that do too much score settling. "My red flags and Spidey sense start tingling" says Yagoda, when the author of a memoir is a kind of wronged hero.
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In theory, it shouldn't be that hard to write an engaging memoir. Just remember the events of your utterly fascinating life, convert them into a thoughtful narrative and wait for a spot at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Bang, boom, done!

Not so fast, hot shot. Memoirs may be a hugely popular genre, but they're a minefield from the moment you put fingers to keyboard. Does the Dalai Lama actually think you're the most honorable person he ever met? Did you really give Eleanor Roosevelt a wedgie? And quite frankly, that alien abduction during a Cubs game at Wrigley Field sounds a little far-fetched.

Still, your whoppers might make it into a published memoir and not be discovered. Your work might have other problems too, from overwhelming I'm-awesome-ness to suspiciously perfect recall of remarks that are older than Helen Mirren.

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Now there's a way to judge whether your memoir, or anyone else's, makes the grade. Ben Yagoda, a University of Delaware professor and author of "Memoir: A History," has just come out with a "half-facetious, half-serious" way to measure a memoir's "truthy aspects" – based on criteria such as fact-checking, self-criticism and writing style.

This week, I asked Yagoda about the evolution of memoirs, the importance of truth, and the questionable value of ripping into those who have done you wrong.

Q: You take points away for memoirs that take the opportunity to criticize other people. That would maybe be about half of any memoir I'd write. ("This person annoys me. And this person is a weenie. And…") So what's wrong with writing a memoir that says so-and-so stinks, and here's why?

A: It's about a very specific issue of truth and falsehood. My red flags and Spidey sense start tingling when I start reading about someone who wrote a memoir, and he or she is a kind of hero and the wronged person, and these other people treated them badly. It's the kind of thing that makes me a little bit dubious about the truth aspect.

It's very human to want to settle scores, but it doesn't particularly make for great literature, unless you really do it well. In a way, it's a bit too human to make for great writing.

Q: How important is truth among all the different aspects of a memoir?

A: It's not the be-all and end-all. You can have a book that's absolutely true in every period, comma, word, and sentence, and still be a totally crummy book.

Q: What's an example of a memoir that does it right?

A: One of the classics is Rousseau's "Confessions," which stands up very well several hundred years after it was written. The things he tells about himself, the embarrassing things he did, are part of what make it a classic book. And the quality of writing reflects a sort of reflection and insight.

Q: What's changed in memoirs over the centuries?

A: They really started up in the 1700s, when there wasn't an expectation to be personal and intimate. Trollope wrote his memoirs, and I don't think he mentioned his wife once. It was all about his professional life.

Now there's a high level of intimacy and revelation that's expected.

The other thing is the democratization of the memoir. Up until about 30 years or so, the expectation was that only prominent people would write their memories. They've really been opened up to anyone with a story to tell.

Q: Do you think we've moved on from the era of memoirs about addiction and terrible childhoods?

A: The bar is higher now than it was, say, 10 years ago. We've gotten the wave of them out of our system, and now just finding someone with a dysfunctional family or a traumatic story isn't enough. It has to be a good book as well.

Q: What advice do you have about writing a memoir?

A: It doesn't necessarily have to be a book. I have read a lot of memoirs that could have been a wonderful 30 to 40 page essay. The discipline of memoir-as-essay can produce some really fine work.

I have followed my own advice. About 10 to 12 years ago, I started writing personal memoir in the forms of essay.

Q: Did you write negatively of anyone?

A: Certainly you can't be a pollyanna and paint everybody as being wonderful, lollipops and roses.

There's this one person who was complicated. When this piece was published, someone who knew the person sort of flamed me and said, "You were too nice to that person." Maybe he was right. But even then I had the sense that if I had to settle scores in print, people would have looked askance at it and said it would be obvious that I'm trying to settle scores. I did have to dance around that issue.

Q: Why don't you write a full memoir?

A: Probably by nature, I'm a little too discreet to do more than kind of dabble in this form. You have to be willing to put more out there in terms of yourself and other people. The truth hurts.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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