INVENTING THE TRUTH The Art and Craft of Memoir Edited by William Zinsser Houghton Mifflin. 172 pp. $16.95
William Zinsser, editor of "Inventing the Truth," a slight but charming wafer of published talks on the craft of memoir by five of America's most acclaimed authors -- Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Alfred Kazin, Toni Morrison and Lewis Thomas -- defines memoir as "... a corner of ... life that was unusually vivid or intense ... unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant ..." The definition is useful, but the distinction from autobiography, I feel, is quite unjust.
Autobiographies that begin "I was born ..." and end with a salute from the helicopter steps or its locker room equivalent are really self-biographies, records (if we want them) of monumental self-aggrandizement and blighted self-awareness. True autobiography, like memoir, sees the self as a focus on the world, not the focus of the world's attention.
The ostensible subject of memoir may well be classically journalistic and objective, like growing up during the Depression (Russell Baker's "Growing Up"), or in Protestant Pittsburgh (Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood") but with a little bit of luck the subject will be sacrificed for the sheer wonder, pain and glory of discovering oneself as a particular person at a random time and place. What Zinsser and others term "memoir" cannot be so neatly separated from the intersecting axes of personal fiction and personal essay.
All autobiographical writing is distinguished by the intensity of its sensual recall and its baffled self-consciousness. The link between Alfred Kazin's "A Walker in the City" and Dillard's "An American Childhood," for example, is simple wonder: that I should be here, in this city, among these people! Were it to add conflict and resolution, it would be fiction.
Like most wafers, this book is best ingested just before, or shortly after, a substantial feast; in this case, a feast of memoir reading. A lineup of Baker, Dillard, Kazin, Morrison and Thomas can hardly be faulted. Baker, Dillard and Kazin have written three of America's most successful contemporary memoirs. Toni Morrison, the only fiction writer, acknowledges her debt to a potent brand of memoir, the slave narrative. Lewis Thomas, the cell scholar and essayist, has little to say about memoir but his series of fanciful hermetic observations on cellular evolution and language at least closes on the subject of the human brain, speech and self-consciousness -- the source of memoir.
Memoir is the most spontaneous, the most libidinous, the most democratic of literary forms. There's no way to plan it, or to stop it. There is no single form to follow: It is a genre with acknowledged masterpieces but no master text that incorporates all the rules. A great novelist may produce half a dozen masterworks; a great memoir is likely to be an only child.
The value of this book, to readers curious enough to share the process of composition, is learning to recognize an emerging pattern of urgency and accident, initial failure sharpening into exultant creation. Toni Morrison likens it to the "floods" of the Mississippi River as it refills dry, "straightened" parts of its ancient channel. The river doesn't flood -- it merely remembers. Morrison recalls the taste and texture of corn grown in her family's garden patch, and suddenly the world of 19th-century slavery, and her novel "Beloved," is available to her.
Russell Baker's memoir of growing up in the Depression years was dull journalism until the unlikely discovery of his mother's marriage license in the corner of an attic trunk. That shred of paper revealed that his mother had been well along in pregnancy when she married his father. At the age of 54, he discovered he'd been a love child! From that simple missing piece in the familiar jigsaw of his life, new relationships tumbled into place and the "truth" behind a lifetime of baffling rages and silences could then be invented.
Memoir seizes the responsive author, subverting him or her from cold, abstract objectivity into a treacherous, unplotted world of intense subjectivity. A great many memoirs and autobiographies and autobiographical fictions are journalistic assignments that somehow failed to stay objective, thank God.
This book, like the dozens of classics to which it refers, is another testament to the enduring glory of American literature -- its grounding in the personal voice. Authenticity through subjective experience: Nothing could be more Protestant in origin (Kazin acknowledges it; Dillard personifies it), more prone to banal exploitation, to bombast, or to the thing we wait for as readers or hope will seize us as writers: the lightning jolt of memory that will plunge us again into the democracy of bafflement where we are all the geniuses of our lives and times.
The reviewer, who teaches at Columbia, is the author of a sequence of stories and memoirs, "Resident Alien.