Messing with Memoir

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When my memoir went out of print, it was as if someone had thrown a stray puppy onto my doorstep. Dazed, mangy, with a tendency to pee on the rug, this orphaned book was something I couldn’t shoo away, or worse, put down, but also something I didn’t have any room for in my life.

The memoir, called Fighting Fire, had been written a decade before. It was about my career as a San Francisco firefighter, and it had done well, and for a moment there I was almost famous, so I was grateful for it. But frankly, that part of my life was over. I was no longer a firefighter. I had published a second book. I was working on a third. The last thing I wanted to do was revisit my first piece of writing.

I faced the fact that St. Martins Press had broken up with me, and pouted. I had the rights reverted. Then I did nothing.

Meanwhile the publishing industry was undergoing seismic changes. E-book sales were taking off, tablets were coming to the fore, and self-publishing was combing its hair and wearing cool glasses. The big houses couldn’t wipe the dazed look off their faces. But writers – a luddite group if there ever was one – were watching emerging technologies with a keen eye. What did it all mean for the books we were going to write? A few of my peers self-published, or turned to boutique presses, known as micropublishers. I vaguely thought, yeah, I should just throw Fighting Fire back in the world. But it seemed emotionally taxing and time consuming – I didn’t even know where the original file was, and if I found it, whether the ancient computer program it was written on would work. Forget it, I thought.

Then I had a bad accident. I crashed the experimental plane I was flying and spent many miserable months on the sofa. I did what many drug addled, depressed people do. I thought about the end of the world (it was soon), I thought about the meaning of life (it was shit, all shit) and I thought about my paltry legacy. It dawned on me that my memoir was no longer immortal. It existed now in a finite state, instead of that glorious, ever multiplying iteration of itself known as The Next Printing. At some point all existing copies would die slow, ignominious, wear-and-tear deaths – spines broken, pages soiled, edges ragged. They would be buried in a recycling bin. They would become 2-ply toilet paper sold at co-ops.

I emerged from my stupor and decided to republish Fighting Fire.

The old cover

Not only republish, but re-edit, revise and update it. I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.

Even more important, a memoir is a reflection of who you are at the time of writing. But now I would be peering backwards at myself from a new vantage point. Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?

Nicolas Carr recently wrote about a similar situation, describing how he’d brushed off some old essays and published them on Kindle. He’d then pulled a few to “tweak a couple of sentences,” and put them back into e-circulation, well aware that readers would never be wiser. Carr noted that in printed books “the words stay put.” But with the “endless malleability of digital writing … the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with a source file.” He compared e-books to manuscripts before the Gutenberg Press, when “books were handwritten by scribes and no two copies were exactly the same.”

Still, a misplaced word here and there by someone with a tetchy quill pen didn’t quite relieve me of the ethical dilemma. And Carr himself was editing essays about innovation, for which factual updates are necessary and sentence changes only a surface manicure. He was making it a more truthful article and a better read. But memoir seemed to be different. Changes here could disrupt a deeper, more essential truth.

We pick up a memoir knowing it isn’t “true” in the way of, say, a biography. A biography pretends at least, to be impartial. It tallies a life from a series of facts and circumstances agreed upon by more than one source, and we pick up the book because the author has assured us that she has no vested interest in how the life she’s chronicling turns out. The memoir is exactly the opposite. The author reaches into the din of facts and thoughts and circumstances and proudly, defiantly, pulls out those that resonate with her, arranging them in the pattern that best communicates her experience of that din. She scoffs at multiple sources, shrugs at objectivity, admits readily to a vested interest. The memoir is subjective. And it is this very subjectivity that at once makes revisions both completely fine, and also completely reprehensible.

My plan was to add some firefighting adventures. These had missed initial inclusion because they’d happened after publication. (A big fire here, a gang killing there, the explosion that could have killed me.) This seemed straightforward. But I also wanted to cut out the whole second chapter, which I now judged to be needless backstory. Another chapter in the middle would get the axe – boring, unnecessary. Sentences would be re-edited along the way, whole paragraphs would probably be strafed. Descriptions that had needlessly insulted people would definitely be rewritten; who knew that describing a firefighter as choirboy handsome was not a compliment? Now I could cut it, and my friend would no longer have to endure endless ribbing from his peers. In other words, I would rewrite the book using judgment that the young author at the time did not have.

The new cover

By now I was taken with the sparkle and shine of what could be a freshly scrubbed memoir. So I dug deep for justification, thousands of years deep. I looked past the e-book, the printing press, and the scribes, to the oral tradition, where tales had been passed from generation to generation through memory, changing each time. These accounts were memoirs too; the life stories of a people or a culture, and any changes became the evolving truth of the story. Did the story hold on to its original roots? We can never know for sure. Does it bother us? It doesn’t seem to.

In the end, I made a decision: I would overhaul the original edition. I hadn’t reached a firm ethical conclusion and it didn’t seem that I would, so I opted for plain and simple vanity: I wanted my best self forward, and that was that. Skywriter Books, a micropublisher run by writer Holly Payne, shepherded me through the logistics of the process, while I managed the complicated emotions that come with dropping back into the past. I had long, tense conversations with my younger self – why the fuck did you write that, what the hell were you thinking, are you serious, you put that out into the world? – and I relived a time that was formative and incredible, but that I thought had come and gone. For months I was unmoored, disoriented. Then it was done. And I liked the result.

I wrote an introduction, explaining the situation, so the reader would understand that there were two authors of this book – my wide-eyed, earnest younger self and my more skilled older self. Each voice was authentic, and the memoir never lied. But, still, was it “right”? Did revising, re-editing and updating alter something essential in the book? I don’t know. One thing I am sure of: as technology gives us more flexibility and more of us decide to republish our memoirs, the quandaries will become clearer and with them, the answers.


Caroline Paul is the author of the memoir Fighting Fire and the historical novel East Wind, Rain, a Bay Area bestseller. Her next book is Lost Cat, a story of love, desperation and GPS technology, due out by Bloomsbury in early 2013. More from this author →