The Art of Nonfiction with Damien Hirst
Who says you actually have to remember your life to write about it? Damien Hirst has announced he is publishing his autobiography, despite the fact friends say the enfant terrible of enfants terribles (the Young British Artists) can’t remember a 10-year period that began in his 20s, according to the Daily Mail.
If true, that formative period of forgetfulness could include the first YBA show, where Hirst’s infamous stuffed shark made its debut; his first Venice Biennale in 1993, where Mother and Child Divided was first exhibited; his winning of the Turner Prize in 1995 and — oh yeah — his first autobiography/art book, published in 1997 and titled, I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now.
The hole in the 48-year-old artist’s memory is likely the result of his early drug addiction. After winning the Turner Prize, Hirst allegedly blew the £20,000 award in one night; helater began suffering blackouts after mixing cocaine and alcohol.
Helping him remember those sickeningly rich but troubling years is co-author James Fox, who has also ghostwritten Keith Richards’s autobiography. “It’s a joint venture, so Damien’s doing a lot of the research, and I’m doing a part, too,” Fox told the Daily Mail.
But we can’t help suspecting that Hirst might benefit from the example of more seasoned memoirists. Take James Frey, for instance. When he admitted to Oprah that he fabricated a good chunk of his drug addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Frey explained that he’d been inspired by writers like Jack Kerouac who tried to “make art out of what they lived.” So, Rule Number One: this is not another art project.
Rule Number Two? We know it’s tempting, but don’t lie. While plenty of memoirists — including Lauren Slater and Vivian Gornick — will encourage you to invent whatever you think could have happened, just consider an embarrassing interview that Augusten Burroughs gave to CBS about his controversial 2002 memoir, Running With Scissors. When asked whether a particular scene in the book, involving his abusive father chasing him through a dark forest, actually occurred, Burroughs replied, “I don’t know if it happened or not … If it didn’t, it’s something that he would have done, I mean, you know?”
If it all sounds like one big headache, you’ll appreciate this tidbit from Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. “Give therapy a shot,” she told Salon.com. “A weekly session will be a filter for your worst, most tedious ‘memoir material.’ Talking to a shrink will give you a regular time and place to do the whole therapy thing so that your writing does NOT turn into that.”
But perhaps the best advice of all comes from Mary Karr, the straight-talking author of a triad of memoirs including Lit (2010), a chronicle of her own battle with alcoholism. In aParis Review interview, Karr revealed her own practical rule-of-thumb: “You don’t remember something? Write fiction.”