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?

Changeable Memory

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.cartoon truth in memoir

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

Ten Ways to Tell the Truth in Memoir

  1. Hunt out and include the reverse of your usual approach. For example, if you are usually a positive person, include dark memories.
  2. 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.
  3. If facts are publicly verifiable, verify them! Readers lose faith if you get a provable fact wrong.
  4. 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.
  5. It is almost impossible to remember dialogue. That’s okay. Remember the intent of the conversation and recreate the dialogue accordingly.
  6. 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….”
  7. 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)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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. 

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  1. That was an interesting look at truth in memoir writing. I was aware that emotions, other people, and various other factors can change memory as can time. I am certain of everything I have gone through over the years, however, the minutia of details as to conversations or surroundings are a little hazier in my memory. I still plan on writing my memoir at least a first draft and will go from there. While things are still rattling around in my head it is too chaotic and scattered to determine whether I have a story others would be interested in reading.

    I think the very words you use can change how the reader perceives the scene or experience you are trying to relay. The word machete conjures up a certain knife in my mind, however, someone who has not seen one would need it described visually to get that it is a very large sharp knife. I think that is where I will have to do more rewriting…the details. I believe I will just want to get the main points down in that first draft in order to get it all on paper where I can do something with it.

    I plan on constructing a list of things to look for before doing any rewriting. That list would include things like 1) Are there enough details given that a reader could visualize what I am talking about? 2) Are there any points where my timeline has gotten muddled with events out of sequence? I am sure there are much more items that should be on that list but you get the idea and I am nowhere near needing that list yet. I will leave that for just before I do my first rewrite.

    Thank you, Karen, for these articles on writing a memoir. I am finding every bit of this helpful. I know other tribe members may be getting tired of this topic if they are not interested in memoirs in general or writing their own in particular. I like that you also post other articles at the same time that may catch their interest, so thank you for that as well.

    1. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful and supportive comments, Susan. I love the idea of a list of things to consider when you are working on second or third drafts of your memoir. And I think it’s really, really wise to NOT be concerned about any of this in your first draft.
      I’m super glad the suggestions have been helpful but also think it’s probably good that there’s only one more post in the memoir series. You will be able to write and just get everything down on paper without thinking about all of the various suggestions and cautions coming at you every week.

      1. I think you may be right about the suggestions and cautions every week. I do appreciate and enjoy all the research you have been doing and relaying to me week after week but at some point, I think you’re right, I need to stop reading about the various aspects of how to write it and just sit down and write! 😉
        Wasn’t there some advice in the stone therapy post that said something like this? If you are going to walk, walk. If you are going to sit, sit. Well, if I am going to write, I must write…just get on with it already. LOL 🙂

  2. Hi, Karen –

    I am greatly enjoying your series on writing a memoir. When reading this series, great quotes frequently spring to mind. This recent post conjured up several favorite quotes for me. I had great difficulty choosing which to share. I settled upon a quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi and one from Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”
    Obi-Wan Kenobi

    “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. ” Oliver Wendell Holmes

    Great post!!

    1. Thank you, Donna. And thanks for the quotes. We clearly share a passion for wonderful quotes. I just picked up a book at the library full of quotes divided according to theme. Here’s one on aging – nothing to do with this topic – that I thought you might enjoy.
      “I just turned sixty. Practically a third of my life is over.” – Woody Allen

  3. I sent your quote to my sister in law who turned 60 in February and was having a really hard time with that particular birthday. Wait till she finds out she will also turn 61!

    I also am finding your memoirs series very useful and will provide me with rich direction when I finally get down to writing my first draft. After that I am sure I will “turn those sentences around and around” to make sure I am saying what I want.

    As I read your articles, I am also filing away things I want to say in my Forward section. Trouble is this Forward section keeps getting bigger and bigger! I thought I had nailed it with the last blog topic. Now I must do some sort of reader preparation in addressing the concept of truth in memoir. I must say I have thought about how to present the more negative aspects of my memories. So my first draft is the truth and nothing but the truth from my perspective. Then the “turning of the sentences” will happen while still preserving my version of the truth. I can see my son and grandson’s having a bookclub type of discussion of my memoir.

    I feel this comment is very superficial in many ways and will need to reread and reflect some more. But for now this is a start! Thanks again.

    1. It doesn’t sound superficial, Fran. It sounds as if you are doing lots of musing about your memoir, and I know you’ve been doing some note taking too. Seems to me you’re in great shape, moving right along so that when you’re ready to really go at it, lots will be sorted out in your head.

      I noticed you mentioned the “turning sentences around” quote a couple of times. It’s one of my favourite descriptions of the writing process. Glad you like it too!

  4. Karen, this is another really excellent post on memoir writing. The issue of truth — that a memoir must be the truth and nothing but the truth — is why I became stuck on Mary Carr’s book and ended up putting it aside for awhile. Like some of the authors you mention above, I believe that memory shapeshifts over time. Although one can earnestly aim for a “true” account, and there can be “felt truth,” I don’t believe that there can be absolute truth in memoir. The “truth” one writes is necessarily partial, contextual, temporary, and subjective. The memoir story says more about the storyteller’s character, beliefs, and perspectives than about particular events and how they unfolded. And maybe that is one reason why we tend to find memoirs so fascinating — that strange shifting interplay between the writer’s voice and the claim of truth.


    1. Beautifully put, Jude. I can certainly understand why you’d get a bit stuck on Mary Karr’s book. In Stephen King’s memoir of the craft of writing, he references Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liar’s Club. He says that Karr “presents her childhood in an almost unbroken panorama” whereas King’s childhood is “a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees.” As much as it would be nice to suspend all disbelief and think it possible for a writer to share “absolute truth”, King’s description is certainly more appropriate to my experience and, I imagine, to most/all of us.

  5. This is another great article about memoir, Karen. I”m glad you reference Tristine Rainer a lot. I really enjoyed her book “Your Life as Story”. I have no problem going all the way or talking about anything (not many taboos in my demeanor and I don’t have a problem discriminating myself – I’ll make up for it later in the story :-)), as long as I don’t hurt others, but I find it much harder to write these things down in a very compelling way. I still feel like I am summarizing too much when writing this first draft, rushing through scenes and episodes, because I can’t pick which ones to dig into deeper. The eternal “show, don’t tell” technique has to be improved!

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I have trouble with “show, don’t tell” as well, I think because I’m used to writing nonfiction. I’ve just picked up a book titled “Word Painting” (love the title!) to help me write more descriptively. When I read it, I’ll do a post with any good suggestions I find, just in case they might help you too.
      For what it’s worth, I’m also thinking that there’s nothing wrong with dumping everything into your first draft. At least then you’ll have all of your material in one place and you can go back and flesh out each scene that you decide to use. By outlining everything in your first draft rather than writing in detail, I imagine you’ll even be saving time because you won’t have written tons on scenes that you decide not to include in the second draft.

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