The Truth is a sticky subject. Some believe it is finite and absolute while others believe it is abstract and does not exist. The memoir is presumed to be a true collection of stories and memories written from personal knowledge and experience (Dictionary.com). How do you, the memoir writer, balance these two opposing beliefs about the Truth? How do you create a piece of work that is presumed to be true if some of the events you document are not recorded for instant playback and reference? This is the debate I will be highlighting in this post.
First, we must define memoir, which is considered a non-fiction sub-category of the biography and auto-biography. Wikipedia.com differentiates between an auto/biography and a memoir by stating, “A biography or autobiography tells the story ‘of a life,’ while a memoir often tells ‘a story from a life.’” Publisher and writing coach Belinda Pollard explains that a “memoir is creative non-fiction… it uses the techniques of fiction: character, scene, dialogue. But it isn’t fiction.” So, if a memoir is not fiction, does that mean it must be true? Let’s explore!
The challenge writers face when strictly adhering to the truth is that emotion and feelings are lost. Mimi Schwartz, an award-winning author and memoir teacher explains, “If we stick only to facts, our past is as skeletal as black-and-white line drawings in a coloring book. We must color it in.” But how many “colors” should we use? Schwartz clarifies her argument by saying “making up anything… is crossing the line…[but] if the main plot, characters, and setting are true, if the intent is to make honest sense…and tell that true story well…it’s memoir…” This is where I believe the crux of the argument lies. If your INTENT is true and honest, you are in the clear.
Readers understand that specific details of a memory may be lost over time, but if a writer blatantly lies and attempts to pass a fictional encounter as true, readers are less forgiving. Why not simply label your work as fiction if you would like to create a story? Is it worth losing your credibility as a writer and damaging your reputation? Jane Friedman, an award-winning blogger and 20-year veteran of the publishing industry, reminds writers that “the memoirist must truly face his or her characters.” Yes, once your story is out for the world to see, you may encounter some strong and unwanted opinions from those individuals about whom you’ve written! Be prepared!
Finally, we live in a world where almost everything is documented. Whether you write the exact truth or fudge here and there, disclose your uncertainty upfront, if any exists. If you do not, popular blogger and memoirist Stephanie Klein puts it frankly: “Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you.”