In praise of the author’s note

In 2008, David Carr published a memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Carr, who died in 2015, had been a longtime reporter, first for the Twin Cities Reader in his hometown of Minneapolis and later for the New York Times. 

Most memoirists rely on their memory. Some draw on diaries and photos. Some do secondary research, like looking up events of the day online or in newspapers or books or films. Some return to their stomping grounds and consult family members or friends who were there, to confirm or refute their memories.

Carr did all of this, plus something a little different: he investigated his life, as he would the subject of one of his pieces for the paper. Carr had to: “the night of the gun” refers to the night he remembered his best friend pulling a gun on him, after a bender. That’s the story he’d always told himself and others. But why would his friend have done this? When he asked his friend about it, years later, his friend told him Carr had the details wrong. It was Carr who held the gun. Where, Carr asked himself, would he have gotten a gun? And what led him to pull it on his best friend? 

David Carr had been using heavy narcotics and booze for well over a decade at the time—as he puts it: he was zero times zero. His memory was a little suspect, and as memories ferment, they usually make us seem better than we were—they realign into a story with which we can live.

In his author’s note, Carr reveals his method: conducting dozens of interviews, consulting hundreds of legal and medical records. Then he writes, “All of which is not to say that every word of this book is true—all human stories are subject to errors of omission, fact, or interpretation regardless of intent—only that it is as true as I could make it.”

My favourite part of a book is the author’s note, which explains an author’s intentions. They’re not very common, which I think is a missed opportunity.

The author’s note, the short page or two at the front of a book, is like a longer version of the disclaimer that you might read on a copyright page for a novel: “This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The disclaimer covers butts: the publisher’s, the author’s. It’s there for legal reasons.

The author’s note is different: it’s one of the few sanctioned spots where a writer can say, upfront rather than hidden in the acknowledgements or notes, “Here is why I made these decisions. I’m telling you, not showing you. I did these things, and I did not do those things. Deal with it.” 

An author’s note is a way to be clear about your methodology, in the spirit of honesty. When you’re clear with your reader about what you’re doing, and you don’t divert from the path, you can get away with almost anything.

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