Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Nonfiction

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How much of a memoir should be true?

This is an interesting question in light of recent literary news, where certain memoirists are faced with angry readers when fabrications are discovered. And who can blame those readers? Memoir, by its very definition, is a narrative of personal experience. The word itself comes from the Latin word meaning “memory.” In labeling a book a memoir, the author creates a contract with the reader that the book is recording actual events.

But what are “actual events” anyway? A memoir doesn’t just detail the facts of what happened like a history textbook might; it portrays the writer’s experience of what happened. And anyone who has ever compared notes with a sibling about a shared past event knows that people can experience the exact same moment in very different ways.

Still, some details are simple fact, no matter what an individual thinks or feels about them. A three-year stint in jail? You either served it or you didn’t. Ditched the entire fifth grade to steal and sell car parts? You either spent those days on the street, under cars, watching out for rightful owners, or you didn’t. It’s that simple. Yet, much of life doesn’t fit into such easy categories. Many moments are open to interpretation. For example, Lucy may have felt harassed in high school by the principal’s son. Her friends might not have called it harassment and the principal’s son may have said it was a crush. But the harassment felt real to Lucy—the intimidating stares during class time, notes with sexual undertones that felt threatening—so much so that she hid in the bathroom during lunch all of Sophomore year. That is the memoirist’s truth—her experience of the actions.

This distinction between simple fact and personal truth is important. James Frey, author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces, wrote a book that clearly touched many people for its candid and intense portrayal of addiction. But his fabrication of simple facts—the claim that he served 87 days in jail, for instance, rather than the 3 hours he really spent—casts doubt on Frey’s genuineness throughout the entire book.

As if that’s not enough of a gray area, here’s another facet: the memoirist needs to dramatize. It’s essential to a strong narrative. But try and remember conversations from yesterday—let alone 15 years ago—word for word. How does that work out for you? Writers couldn’t possibly remember each word exchanged or every sequence of actions. In such situations, memoir writers will invent, but still stay true to the heart of the moment. Betty’s father might not have said, “Get out of my house. Nobody’s got time for you now,” to his daughter when she was ten, but he did say something akin to that, which made her feel unwanted and vulnerable enough to go running out the front door, barefoot in the snow. In writing that line, Betty would be staying true to her experience of the moment.