If 80 percent of Americans have Katrina fatigue, the nation's level of Frey fatigue must be reaching the high 90s. And yet the debate about whether James Frey's memoir is truth, lies, lying truths, or truthy lies has fragmented into a million little pieces and is lodged, intractably, in every print, broadcast, and cable outlet. I'm not sure why. Maybe as a nation we prefer to play Truth or Consequences: Literature instead of Truth or Consequences: Politics.
For my own part, as someone who's struggling to write a memoir, I prefer to write about someone else's fucked-up attempt to write about his life than make my own fucked-up attempt to write about my life. This might actually be why the Frey story has legs. Everyone wants to tell her story, and everyone thinks she knows the right way to do go about it.
To writers like Mary Karr (Liars Club), Frey's distortion is inexcusable. "He keeps saying there's a great debate about fact and fiction in memoirs," Karr said recently on CNN.com. "But the only debate is in his mind. It's really not that hard; you just don't make stuff up."
I'm with Karr on this, but then I'm a little too hung up on the truth. For me, the capital-T truth about my childhood has become so important that I fetishize five boxes of written material that span third grade through college. I've carried them from apartment to apartment and house to house my whole adult life, sometimes jettisoning furniture and books in order to fit those damn boxes into my hatchback.
Sometimes, "working on my book" involves arranging the items by type: diaries in one box, letters in another, stories in yet another. Other times, "working on my book" involves rearranging them all chronologically. This can take weeks and makes me feel productive.
At least Frey wrote something, even if it is all lies. If truth didn't have such a death grip on me, I might have written a bestseller, too. My weirdo hippie upbringing isn't as sensational as, say Augusten Burroughs' story, though, it turns out, maybe his isn't, either. Perhaps I'm stifled by the pressure to recount my life as a series of dramatic events. Frey succumbed to this pressure. In an explanation to accompany future editions of the book he writes, "I just wanted the stories ... to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require."
I've found some memoirists in an unlikely field who could teach me and Frey a thing or two. The comic artists in the exhibit "Alternative Girlhood: Diaristic Indulgence and Contemporary Female Artists," at SUNY Brockport (through February 19), do an excellent job of portraying their and their characters' lives in moving and convincing ways, despite --- or because of --- the cross-hatching and talk bubbles.
The cartoons, some of which have been published, are frank, hilarious, and painful looks into the lives and minds of 10 or so young women. What's so convincing and delightful about these works is that, against the quotidian backdrops of high-school hallways and minimum-wage jobs, they address topics like parents dying, craving popularity, and rape. These comics prove you don't have to have explosive fights, incarcerations, and grisly suicides to have a meaningful life. Or to make riveting, appealing art.
And there's something refreshing about the quixotic way these cartoon stories progress. Unlike male-produced graphic novels, exhibition curator Alisia Chase says, women tend to tell stories with less of a contrived, driving narrative. "Women's work tends to be more rooted in the emotional; the meandering everyday and significant emotional stuff versus the straight narrative of male's work."
Chase, an assistant professor of art history, points out that some images themselves meander, uninterrupted by frames. The drawings in Vanessa Davis's beautiful I Wonder Where the Yellow Went wend their way down the page as the story of her father's death entwines with observations of the family cat's daily routines. "It's very much as life happens, the fragments that add up to a whole," Chase says.
In Tit Chat, Ariel Bordeaux's character talks about having large breasts, which, she reveals, aren't as much of a nuisance as she's always claimed. She and her friends denigrate their bodies too often, she realizes, and she decides to stop it. "Ladies --- please!" the main character says. "We have a room full of excellent melons here! Rejoice!"
For a while after college, I made cartoons. In one of them, Loser at Home on a Saturday Night, the heroine sits in front of the mirror brushing her hair and trying to convince herself that she's okay with not having anywhere to go. She gets stressed out, brushing harder and harder until half her hair falls out.
I should have stuck with comics. One of my writer friends keeps telling me I have such great material, but I fear it's wasted on me. I want to write about the time my mother stepped out of the shower and casually gave me a lesson in human sexuality, calling my father over at one point to illustrate. And about the time my brother and I were sent to a camp for special children and became convinced we were retarded. And also about the time my parents paraded around the house singing, "Jenny's a woman now," while I stood, miserable, waiting for someone to give me a tampon.
Well, there, I did it. And it's the truth. But it felt weird. Maybe I should take a page out of comic artist Shary Boyle's richly illustrated and powerful book, The Story of Jane Doe, and stick to writing about others' lives. Or go organize those boxes one more time.