Size up as best you can the personality of the man or woman who is talking and take it constantly into consideration as you judge the truthfulness of what he [she] has to say. ~Raymond Walters
Ben Yagoda has written a well-researched and insightful study of the history of autobiographical literature, Memoir. The subtext concerns any writer’s ability to tell the truth. In tracing the back story of the development of a genre, Yagoda simultaneously delves into Pontius Pilate’s infamous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
It has been argued, correctly I think, that Augustine invented a new kind of genre with his Confessions. Yet Yagoda locates the beginning of the modern memoir as a by-product of Renaissance humanism. The development of glass mirrors, he maintains, was a key aspect of the period’s emphasis on the self. Notable people, from Dante to Erasmus to Shakespeare, all reflected on themselves in diaries or personal essays.
A breakthrough piece, which Yagoda calls the greatest memoir of all time, came in the mid-18th century from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Confessions borrowed the title from Augustine, but invented four characteristics that have marked memoirs ever since: a belief in total frankness, an emphasis on the inner life, significant attention to childhood and youth, and the recognition that mundane matters could be “as earthshaking as a grand battle, maybe even more so.” My own work, Take My Hand, self-consciously exhibits all of these points, which was partly intentional and also due to Rousseau’s enduring influence on the genre. His innovations are now taken for granted and plainly evinced in writers as diverse as Lauren Winner, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Augusten Burroughs.
But this raises further questions: just how truthful can a writer be? Yagoda offers a particularly poignant illustration: “true” testimony is ammunition in a political debate. As a result, one side will be tempted to exaggerate and the other side will respond with an effort to debunk or expose. In his autobiography, Mark Twain confesses that, in purporting to tell a factual history of his life, “[A writer] is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being.” We filter our experiences through our emotions and worldviews; we interpret our own history. As Freud put it, our memory is a “creative writer.”
The key, then, is self-awareness. Rousseau admits that he cannot vouchsafe some of the “facts” of his memoir; however, that is not the point. He wrote, “I cannot be mistaken about what I felt, nor about what my feelings led me to do…[memoir] is the history of my soul that I promised, and to relate it faithfully, all I need do is look inside myself.”
I find it fascinating that Jesus’ response to Pilate can be read as a similar injunction. Time and time again, the Roman official tries to confirm Jesus’ identity through outside sources. Is it true, he asks, what the Jews leaders are saying about you? Yet Jesus directs him to look internally: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). What do you hear in your heart? How do you make sense of the world? What values do you hold dearly? Perhaps the “truthfulness” of our writing, as well as our speech, relates primarily to these questions.