Excerpted from Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May


So what’s the story? That homely question isn’t seeking mere entertainment, certainly not fiction. It’s asking for the truth. Or at least, a reasonable rendition of facts, reliable strands of information. But once this search produces a narrative, truth reveals its essential malleability in the face of storytelling. Writers of nonfiction face this conundrum daily. It’s an occupational hazard—and an occupational fascination.

Memoir and history regard each other across a wide divide. In effect, they’re goalposts marking the extremes of nonfiction. The turf that separates them—and of course connects them—is the vast playing field of memory. Though both forms are narrative and require the storytelling arts, they reverse each other—memoir being personal history, while history offers a kind of public memoir. A tantalizing gray area exists where memory intersects with history, where the necessities of narrative collide with mundane facts. The record always retains blank spaces—whether the record emerges from archival sources or from personal memory. Onto that blank space writers in both genres bring the remnants of the past they select in telling their stories.

This space is the uncomfortable location where the historian and the memoirist do the work of interpretation and imagination. History properly claims the authority of documentary record. Memoir, especially in recent times, angles forward with strong claims for the individual voice. History charts the big picture, memoir offers the intimate portrait. Like opposing teams on the same field they seem—and sometimes are—charging against each other.

And yet.

When a little girl’s diary, faithfully kept in the threatened secrecy of her hidden life, stands as the greatest testamentary document to the worst recorded events of the twentieth century—we know postmodern readers, not to mention postmodern writers, have narrowed the space between private and public, between the writing of history and the accounting of a personal life. Authority has shifted from facts to voice. Not that one cancels the other. Nor is this shift simply bad news or good news, but a very complicated story in itself. That story—about the record of history and the voice of memoir, about the documents of an individual life and the articulation of a shared past—forms the puzzle the essayists in this collection attempt to address.

The writers here—historians, journalists, poets, and fiction writers—are also memoirists. They—we—are caught in this complex rhythm, not masters of it. That is the point of this collection. For it is right here, in the contemporary tango of history and memoir, that crucial questions of narrative authority in our times are being resolved. Or perhaps not “resolved,” any more than the mysteries of the past can be “solved.” We have gathered testimony from the field—of play, of battle, of the writing of history and the writing of a life—from practitioners who have to contend with these devilish problems at the level of the paragraph and the sentence. Consider these essays, then, as dispatches from the front lines. The front lines of narrative documentary writing in our times.

The ever more pervasive use of the first-person voice in forms of nonfiction—journalism, history, even biography—that were once pristinely shrouded in distant (“omniscient”) third-person narration held aloft by citations and sources, is no small cultural shift. Who tells the story can be as crucial as the story told. What does it mean to the writing of history that the first-person voice has claimed new authority, that memoir is sometimes seen not as “material” for history, but as history itself? And what does it mean to literature that memoir has become the signature literary genre of the age? Where is fact? Where fiction? Where is the “truth” in the disputed ground of nonfiction storytelling? Where does documentary authority reside—in the footnote or the footprint?

History has always relied on personal documents. Nothing new there. Letters, diaries, even family account books and ledgers have long been the gold standard of authenticity in history writing. These are the most primary of primary sources. But when autobiographical writing claims historical rights of its own—not as a “source” but as an act of history—then the equation has changed. So too in literature, when the personal story claims the authority of nonfiction while clinging to the gripping suspense and charms of fiction. Where are readers to place their trust?

Every writer consciously (or even unconsciously) reaching from the margins to the center for political and social power instinctively presents the personal story—the memoir, in effect—as a radical document, to be read as personal and public. Surely the most important autobiographical work of mid-twentieth-century America is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A personal story, but one properly read as history, taught as history. The women’s movement in its various strands also gave rise to an astonishing array of memoirs in the late twentieth century and beyond. And the Holocaust and the Gulag have provided a vast bibliography of memoirs, so much so that they have created new fields of social and historical study rooted in autobiographical documents and personal testimony.

“The personal is political,” the women’s movement of the 1970s asserted with almost gleeful fervor. But with the rise of the memoir in the final quarter of the twentieth century, not only politics in the present, but the aloof enterprise of history began to take on a strikingly personal voice. Meanwhile the novel, for two hundred years the narrative sovereign of literature, began looking over its shoulder at the upstart memoir.

The question of documentary record and personal voice has even reached opinion pages and editorial columns usually reserved for questions of foreign policy and domestic concerns. It’s almost impossible to imagine the novel, as a form, calling down stern oracular judgments from the editorial board of the New York Times. But the memoir has found itself there in recent times more than once, caught red-handed in fabrications by rogue autobiographers, bringing the entire genre into question. Historians, too, have recently been called on the carpet for playing fast and loose with the facts, or with the words of other scholars.

These tabloid-delighting occasions are only a faint indicator of the dynamic, often dismaying power of the first-person voice in our times. Who tells the story, in what diction (neutral? lyrical?), and from what point of view? Is the narrative self properly obscured or revealed? Whether adrift in the broken images of memory or immersed in archival shards, through interviews, investigative travel, sifting through forgotten family albums in a dusty attic or ferreting out the assiduously buried evidence of nations seeking to elude history’s sniffing nose—writers of memoir and history struggle, sometimes unsure of what genre they’re writing in, genres that seem to be up for grabs. The grabbing can get quite strenuous, and brings us to the very question: where does history stop and memoir begin? What are the rules of this game?

But of course it isn’t a game. Nothing less is at stake than the search for our individual and shared truth.

These questions brought us together as editors from the two disciplines facing each other across the disputed space filled with events and memory—history and creative writing. During the spring of 2007, we were able to bring together all the essayists in this book from across the United States and England for a remarkable series of panel discussions and readings on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. The participants of those spirited gatherings were invited to write essays based on their commentaries and their experience as memoirists—each given, in a sense, the final word.

But there is no final word to the questions that brought us together then or that bring us together again in this volume. If these individual testimonials establish anything, it is the signal value of the exchange. We are not, after all, opposing teams stampeding to claim the same turf. The movement is far more intricate than that. Perhaps it is more useful to imagine memoir and history standing on opposite sides of a mesh net, the shuttlecock of meaning and interpretation flying back and forth. Our purpose here is to keep the volley going.