Inventing the Truth

Inventing the Truth coverInventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
edited by William Zinsser
Mariner Books; 3rd ed. edition (May 20, 1998), 236 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $11.19
purchased during a BookBub sale for $1.99

When I saw the Kindle edition of this book on sale for $1.99 and noticed the subtitle I immediately grabbed it. It didn’t hurt that the editor is William Zinsser, author of the highly regarded (including by me) book On Writing Well.

In 1986 William Zinsser hosted a series of lectures sponsored by the Book of the Month Club at the New York Public Library entitled “The Art and Craft of Memoir.” Five of the chapters in this book are transcriptions of the authors’ discussions about their experiences writing their memoirs. In 1995 Zinsser sat down with his tape recorder and spoke to four additional authors to get their reflections on the same topic.

All of the conversations included here were interesting but I particularly enjoyed the reflections of two authors whose memoirs I have read. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood when it first came out in 1987. I have been a big fan of Dillard’s ever since reading her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the seventies. It was enlightening to read about what she chose to include and what she chose to omit (and why). It was only in the past few years that I have read Alfred Kazin’s 1952 memoir A Walker in the City, though I read and loved his book New York Jew shortly after it was published in 1978. Kazin discusses how the book he planned to write was not the book he ended up writing.

Toni Morrison’s contribution is somewhat different. Rather than discussing the process of writing her own memoir (I don’t believe she has written one), she talks about the structure of the books published by former slaves. We all know about Frederick Douglass, but many other freed or escaped slaves wrote their own autobiographies or memoirs, and she discusses the common threads in those works.

The bibliography is a treasure trove. The authors who contributed to the book offer their list of memoirs and autobiographies that influenced them. It’s enough to keep one immersed in memoir for a long time.

This Kindle edition of Inventing the Truth has its problems. There are typographical errors and in one case a line of type that simply doesn’t belong. But that’s not enough to prevent enjoyment of an interesting and at times enlightening collection of interviews.

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