Like Oprah and just about everyone else on the planet, I have an opinion on Mr. Frey's Million Little Pieces of lies. As an editor, I think my opinion is valuable. Therefore, I'm forcing you to read it. (Stop now if you really want to.)
1. A memoir is not an autobiography. It is a narrative based upon personal experience. It is the author's personal experience and interpretation of a memory. Ergo, it's probably not 100% true. Which is not to say that all, or even most, memoirs are purely fiction. I tend to believe most of them are true--or at least true within the frame of reference of the writer.
2. Everyone's memory is fallible and colored by both previous and subsequential experiences. You might "remember" Suzy wearing a red dress, when in fact, it was blue. You might "remember" the gist of a conversation, but you're not going to get it verbatim.
3. While you are comfortable telling your story and taking your own inventory, which obviously includes interaction with others, you do not have a right to print their inventory for millions of people to read. Therefore, sometimes you change the details: use a different name, different physical description, place them in a different location or career. This is not a horrible thing to do. It is protection for both the other person and for yourself.
4. Unlike a biography, which is a narration of facts connected by time and sequence, a memoir is a narration held together by a theme. It describes or teaches some universal truth. People are only willing to read about your life if they are going to get something back in return--insight, a feeling of connection, a good laugh, whatever. Sometimes to make the point, a memoirist waxes eloquent, rather than strictly literal. This is part of the definition of a memoir.
5. Having said that, a memoir needs to be based upon fact. The writer can only stray so far from harsh reality before they cross the line into fiction. Did James Frey cross that line? From what I saw of his appearance on Oprah recently, I believe he probably did. Bad, Frey. Don't ever do that again.
6. Use a little common sense when reading a memoir. If it sounds unbelievable, it possibly is. Take it with a grain of salt. However, don't assume that just because something doesn't fit within your personal frame of reference it isn't true. Really good men sometimes find it hard to believe that other men would beat their wives. Strong women find it hard to believe other women would stay with men who beat them. So while believability is a clue, it also may not be relevant.
7. When reading a memoir, or anything for that matter, I think the question is not so much is this a 100% representation of the honest-truth-in-every-detail reality, but is there enough truth in this story to touch my heart, to make me change?
8. Along with the aforementioned common sense, do what they say in Twelve Step sharing meetings: Take what you like [what feels true to you] and leave the rest.
9. Real life is a big enough lesson, James. You don't really need to embellish it. And in the future, call a spade a spade. If your story is true, with only small changes to protect the innocent (or more likely, the guilty) call it a memoir. If you write a story about months spent in jail, when in reality it was only a few days, say it is based on a personal experience. And if you really want to be creative, call it fiction. Fiction can move people too.
And that's all I have to say about that.