I recently came across my colleague Hawley Roddick blogging on TalkingWriting.com. I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her thoughts on True Stories Well Told. She agreed–and what follows is my prompting question, and her response.
Two dilemmas come up reliably in my memoir-writing class: what if I can’t remember, and what if someone doesn’t want me to tell a certain story? I tell classes that I am committed to nonfiction narrative—that’s the whole premise of “true stories well told.” If I say, “let’s write fiction,” I solve these dilemmas. Can’t remember? Make it up. Can’t tell a story without upsetting someone? Tell it and call it fiction. What would your answer be?
Hawley Roddick’s response:
Memories may run in our heads like a film, but they are not documentaries. They can’t be checked against fact.
My friend Marsha Lichtenstein PhD is a mediator. When I asked her how memory is seen in her field, she replied that “In mediation, we start with the premise that there is no truth. Whatever we remember is filtered through our experiences, beliefs, training, etc., so there is no way anyone’s memory of an event will be the same as anyone else’s.”
There are, nonetheless, ways to deal with issues of privacy and accuracy in memoir. Here are suggestions from my book Your Memoirs: Saving the Stories of your Life and Work:
* * * begin book excerpt * * *
You don’t have to let readers know that you’re not telling them something, but don’t present a version of events that is inexplicable because of what you leave out. If your father had a gambling problem that he wouldn’t want revealed in your memoirs, you might say:
Aspects of this incident may seem clouded. Out of consideration for others involved, who wouldn’t want their problems revealed here, I omit certain significant events that occurred during this period of my life.
But if you are the one with a gambling problem that you don’t want to own up to in print, explain that
Although there was more going on during this period than I am comfortable discussing, the partial picture makes the point that … [Fill in the point: your reason for including the abridged story instead of omitting it entirely.]
The most interesting memoirs reveal the writer intimately but not embarrassingly. …David Denby [wrote]:
Most memoirs worth reading are memoirs of bad behavior … which is much more interesting than good behavior. (Interviewed by Susan Larson, The Times-Picayune, Tuesday March 23, 2004)…
Sometimes, however, you may not be sure what actually happened. All you have is your own truth. You aren’t responsible for other people’s truths. In this fictional example, Stephanie writes:
I don’t know why, when I was seven, our family dinnertime suddenly went from being warm and talkative to being silent and cold. But I think Dad was seeing another woman and Mom found out about it. When I was a teenager, I asked my aunt if that’s what had happened, and she said she didn’t know, but I don’t believe her. Today it’s still a taboo subject that I can never bring up around Mom. And I wouldn’t dream of asking Dad if he had an affair.
Whether or not her father had an affair, Stephanie believes he did. Perhaps she will have her suspicion confirmed or denied if she lets her parents read her memoirs.
Using true stories that show different aspects of your character at different periods of your life is an effective writing technique. True is a critical word here. Susan Cheever is quoted in the Authors Guild Bulletin (Winter 2007):
“I believe the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap¼. Every writer has a contract with readers that had better be honored. If you let them think it happened, then it damn well better have really happened. If you call your book The Liars Club, then you can do whatever you want.”
… Dealing with the murky area where your rights and needs intersect those of fellow flawed humans, try to avoid character assassination. A fictional example:
Our divorce was so painful that I almost had to be institutionalized, but if I describe what I remember about that ghastly period, I suspect my ex-husband will sue me. I feel quite sure he remembers it all very differently.
You may be free to say that you suspect he will sue, but don’t say, “The bastard threatened to sue me if I tell anyone what he did to me.” Unless you recorded the threat or had a witness, you can’t prove that he made it, and he might take exception with the help of a lawyer.
* * * end book excerpt * * *
Writing a memoir is a creative act that is bound by expectations of—if not the whole truth— nothing but the truth.
This is Sarah White again–thanks for the useful examples, Hawley, and the thoughtful comments! Readers, please visit Hawley Roddick’s website.