Is Nothing But the Truth in Memoir Even Possible?
If you believe memoirists James Frey and Misha Defonseca, truth is subjective. James Frey invented some scenes in A Million Little Pieces and exaggerated others. Misha Defonseca fabricated her entire story, justifying the hoax nine years later with the mind-boggling claim that the book was “not actual reality, but was my reality….” It leaves any aspiring memoirist shaking her head and wondering if truth in memoir is even remotely possible to achieve.
Perhaps it’s easy to write off two such egregious examples of the genre. But it’s not so easy to dismiss the comments of authors who write beautiful, heartfelt, literary memoirs, authors like Dani Shapiro. Shapiro says,
“The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memory.” (p. 171)
But memoir, a form of creative nonfiction, is supposed to be “a true story, well told.” If it isn’t, not only do readers feel cheated, but writers are denied many of the benefits that come from putting the truth on paper.
Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What would be the point if you didn’t?Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
For all her cautions, Dani Shapiro is easily able to draw a clear line between her novels and her memoirs. How does she do it? How can you?
Attorneys know that juries love eyewitness testimony. They also know that such testimony can be inaccurate. The Innocence Project uses DNA testing to free people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Of 239 convictions that were overturned, an alarming 73 percent were initially based on eyewitness testimony. Equally alarming, it didn’t matter how confident the eyewitnesses were. Highly confident eyewitnesses are, at best, only slightly more accurate than those who are less confident.
Memory researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, explains that false memories happen because most of us think that memory works like a video recorder. We may have trouble retrieving the recording, but whatever we do retrieve is accurate. Loftus, however, says that decades of research have proven that theory wrong. Instead, “Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page–you can go change it, but so can other people.”
How You Change Your Memories
Memories, even very recent ones, can change with your emotional state at the time. Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, tells of her fluctuating view of her ex-husband at the time of their divorce. In one scenario he was a “controlling oppressor” but in another, the victim of Rainer’s volatility. Rainer said that her story kept changing “depending on which friend I had just spoken to or how my most recent phone conversation with my husband had ended.” She adds, “In the moment that I believed each version, it felt completely true; no matter that I had believed an entirely different one two hours before.” (pp. 100-101)
Your personality, the way you see the world, also affects your memories. For example, if you’re a “glass half full” person, you’ll recall more positive experiences; “half empty” and you will be more liable to remember negative memories.
Age makes a difference too. Truth in memoir changes with life experiences. Dani Shapiro says, “I think the perfect life’s work for a memoirist might be to write the same book every ten years.”
How Other People Change Your Memories
We’ve all had the experience of recounting a story in front of a family member or friend who exclaims, “That’s not the way it happened!” Given the interplay of emotional state, personality, and age, it is hardly surprising that we remember the same event differently.
Memory researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, has gone a step further to see if it is possible to coax someone into believing a false memory. She and her colleague asked 24 individuals, ages 18 to 53, to try to remember childhood events that the researchers had gathered in advance from parents, siblings, or other close relatives. Each research participant was given a booklet containing three true stories and one false story. The false story was of a shopping trip where the participant, age five, supposedly got lost for an extended period of time, was consoled by an elderly woman, and then reunited with family. Researchers confirmed that none of the participants had been lost in a shopping mall or department store at any point in their childhood.
Nevertheless, seven of the 24 participants claimed to remember the false story, and six of the participants maintained confidence in the fictional event through two follow-up interviews. One implication of this research is that if your family member or friend is adamant that something happened a certain way, it can be remarkably easy for you to remember the event that way as well.
Truth in Memoir Requires Courage
One way to avoid getting details wrong is to not provide them. This isn’t a very satisfactory solution, of course, because the result is vague, squishy writing that no one wants to read. The writing is boring and, just as bad, the reader often feels as if the writer is holding back. That’s the death knell of memoir, as various big-name memoirists explain:
“If you commit to a memoir, you have to commit fully. If there’s stuff you want to avoid saying, write a different book.” Darin Strauss
“I think that any topic or scene or action that elicits any of the ‘lesser’ emotions–shame, guilt, humiliation, etc.–is likely where the good stuff is lurking. I try to go there, and I try to bring the reader along on that journey.” Nick Flynn
“If you’re going to write a memoir, you have to tell the truth as you know and remember it. Once you start smoothing your own rough edges, you might as well make it a novel.” Pearl Cleage
#5 – Is Nothing But the Truth in Memoir Even Possible?
Ten Ways to Tell the Truth in Memoir
- Hunt out and include the reverse of your usual approach. For example, if you are usually a positive person, include dark memories.
- Make sure, says memoirist Mary Karr, that you don’t get all of the best lines. Your reader needs to see both sides of you–“the beautiful and the beastly.” Try to identify the tells that suggest you are posing as someone else. Karr’s tell is that she starts writing about philosophy.
- If facts are publicly verifiable, verify them! Readers lose faith if you get a provable fact wrong.
- Recognize that the accuracy of some details simply doesn’t matter. No one cares if your suitcase was black or brown. Don’t make it a Vuitton if it wasn’t, but otherwise feel free to embellish.
- It is almost impossible to remember dialogue. That’s okay. Remember the intent of the conversation and recreate the dialogue accordingly.
- If you aren’t sure if something is the truth, it’s fine to use phrases like: “It seems likely that…”, or “It was common practice at that time to….”
- Memoirist Meghan Daum considers herself an ordinary person. To keep her readers engaged she finds it helpful to “turn the volume up a notch or two–make yourself a little more neurotic, a little more intense, a little grouchier or more indignant.” (p.84-85)
- For minor characters, it’s okay to create a composite. Tristine Rainer gives the example of employing three gardeners over a six year time period. If the memoir isn’t about the gardeners, combine them into a single character.
- Ditto for multiple scenes. If you went trick or treating every Hallowe’en from the time you were three until you were thirteen, it’s perfectly okay to come up with a single representative Hallowe’en story.
- Make a contract with your reader. If you are going to compress time or change names, say so.
Next week will be the final installment in our Writing Memoir series.
Do you think your memories of significant events are accurate? Is there a way you can know for sure? Please let us know in the comments below.