Every time I go to a book reading for memoir, the question of what’s “true” invariably surfaces in one form or another. It’s generally posed by another aspiring memoirist in the audience who wants to know how to handle their own struggle with memory, or desire or need to protect someone in their family, or fear of getting sued.
Due to the fact that we’ve witnessed some pretty big blowouts around falsified memoirs in the past decade, it’s understandable that people feel some apprehension on the topic of truth. But my feeling is that most writers in this genre are more concerned than they need to be.
Here’s a short round-up of things memoirists do that are not the same as lying:
Sometimes you choose to omit to protect someone you love. You may decide that it’s not worth it to include a particular detail about a family member, because you know it will result in fallout. I’ve known memoirists who’ve slept with very famous people, and have chosen not to write about it for fear of repercussions. There are a million reasons to omit people, experiences, and scenes from your memoir. And there is nothing dishonest about it. Trust your gut on this one.
2. Create composites
Composites come in the form of characters and scenes. You may need to do a composite character to further a story along. For instance, you may have seven aunts and the reader cannot be bothered to be introduced to all of these characters. You may have moved around a lot as a kid, and therefore condense a few towns into one. You may care to showcase certain qualities about friends you grew up with and so you draw inspiration from three friends to create a single character. All of this is legit. It is not lying, and most good memoir requires composites so you don’t bore your reader to tears with extraneous detail.
3. Changing details
You may change details, again, to protect people, or mask their identities. This is usual necessary. Publishers may ask or require you to do this. This may entail changing someone’s hair and eye color, where they were from, their name, their job. The idea here is that the person you’re writing about not be recognizable to those who might know them, even if they’re recognizable to themselves. This is simply good practice, and unless you are 100% sure that the person you’re writing about is 100% cool with you writing about them, you want to change identifiers and names. It’s not lying; it’s just smart.
4. Fill in holes
No one has a perfect memory of all the details of everything they ever experienced in their life. One memoirist I worked with said in response to the criticism that she made up dialogue, “Well, yes, I didn’t walk around during that time with a tape recorder to capture all my conversations.” The point was, it was the gist of what she remembered. And this is all that matters. If you hold yourself to too high a standard where your memories are concerned, you will find yourself unable to move through your memory. I don’t care what memoirist claims to have a superhuman memory; you have to fill in the holes, and sometimes invent entire blocks of dialogue based on your best summation of how things mostly went down based on your recollection of events. And that’s good enough.
My ultimate goal when speaking to memoirist who have fears about lying is to lighten their load. It’s already tough to write memoir. Memoirists are already confronted with self-criticism up the wazoo, not to mention outside critics who go on and about how self-indulgent memoir is. I’ve worked on hundreds of memoirs over the course of my career, and I’ve only seen two authors threatened with lawsuits. One was from an institution that issued a cease and desist before the book went to publication and the author was able to change a small section of “offending” dialogue. The other was from a sibling, who had no legs to stand on when push came to shove. When you write your truth, you will most likely offend people. So hold fast and start slowly. Write for yourself. Protect yourself. And give yourself permission to omit, create composites, change details, and fill in holes.
Is there anything else you do or have done that you think should be on this list? I would love to hear about it.