Let’s face it: memoir is a disreputable genre. It’s often miserable, sometimes ghosted, and relies upon a shaky memory to pretend its truths. In the end the promise that we make to the reader is all that holds fiction back. What we promise is to be as honest as we can be. Our primary intention must be to tell the truth.
Which is why A Book of Untruths is structured around its lies. I wanted to be clear about the problems that we are dealing with when we read a book like this. The question of readability for instance. How can we be honest when rather than accuracy we’re motivated by interesting characters, good dialogue, and a decent setting? But should the art of storytelling be discarded for the sake of truth? No. Who would read if we filled our pages with life’s tedious reality? The uneventful holiday in Strandhill, or that Christmas where there were no fights, and everyone got what they wanted. We don’t want more Facebook, we want Aristotle’s three act story structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis. We want a great book.
The way to forgive ourselves our artfulness is to accept the fact that our very selves lie to us every day. Deceit is at the heart of humanity. We see and narrate our experiences into a story that fits the idea we like to tell. Therefore deceit must be at the heart of autobiography too – the ‘me’ who goes to bed, can never be the same ‘me’ as the one who wakes. So many of our cells have changed in the night, been renewed, replaced, and lost. The connections between our neurons that hold and retrieve rememberings are no longer the same as they were when that memory was formed. Like dirt roads where rain, wind, footprints, cars, and sheep change their surfaces day to day, these pathways are undergoing constant revision – a shifting foundation on which the self is built.
This cellular maintenance is unconscious, our brain, like a live-in servant, getting on with its own thing. But the different selves we adopt each day are conscious, the parent we pretend to be, the child we wish we’d grown out of, or that self who has no idea what it’s doing and worries massively that it’ll be found out. This is where Aristotle’s Pity comes in. Which self do we choose to write with? Always, whether we are writing fiction, essay, or biography, we should be the self who enjoys the page, the freedom we feel from marking a darkness between its margins, the empty edges of a changing frame and the space between its lines.
The self we need for a memoir also needs to be candid, vulnerable, using a voice which has the courage to share intimacies and to have the honesty to hold fiction back. Each year the boundary grows more fragile. We need to watch over it, or like political integrity memoir might dissolve as soon as we turn our backs.
Faced with an ever changing, self deceiving fragmented self I struggled. For five years I had lectured to a University philosophy department on Self and Truth, terrified that someone might find me out. I knew nothing about either truth or self. Before each class I spent an inordinate amount of time in the loo. So to distract the students from how much I did not know I asked them to write a piece of memoir that expressed self as creatively as they could. The more outlandish and extreme the students were in attempting to construct themselves on paper the better their mark. One produced a life on scratch and sniff paper, another a series of captioned objects, while a third ignored the page completely to perform his piece out loud. In the final semester my favourite cardigan was stolen, and a few weeks later one student submitted a memoir that narrated her life through its steals. She liked to wrest a keepsake from the most important relationships she had. Although my cardigan did not feature in the submitted piece I stole back her idea.
This is an admittance I have never confessed to before. I could make my excuses: Mum had just let the cat out of the bag. Dad was a liar she told me. He wasn’t the man the two of them had pretended. The revelation was poorly timed. He’d only just died. But really my motivation for the steal was more about the cardigan than about Dad. I was hooked on that stolen idea, working on my steal in borrowed evening time, building up a library of lies. There was an intoxicating freedom of turning over stones. Deceit defined us as a family. Everyone I realised was doing it: madness, illegitimacy, illegal abortions, rape. So much more fibbing than I ever imagined, and worse still so many of those lies were my own.
(c) Miranda Doyle
Author photograph (c) Mark Turner
About A Book of Untruths:
A Book of Untruths is a family story told through a series of lies. Each short chapter features one of these lies and each lie builds to form a picture of a life – Miranda Doyle’s life as she struggles to understand her complicated family and her own place within it. This is a book about love, family and marriage. It is about the fallibility of human beings and the terrible things we do to one another. It is about the ways we get at – or avoid – the truth. And it is about storytelling itself: how we build a sense of ourselves and our place in the world. A Book of Untruths is a surprising, shocking and invigorating book that edges towards the truth through an engagement with falsehood. It brings questions to its readers; not answers.
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