Memoir is a most intimate bond and sometimes our characters are not content simply to be created by us. If they are still alive, they can talk back, argue with us, disown us, call us to account, and sometimes congratulate or thank us.
Unlike the fiction writer, the memoirist must truly face his or her characters. A memoirist will not exactly mirror everyone else’s perspective, so there is always room for disagreement. You may hear:
“No, that’s not the truth.”
“It didn’t happen that way. That’s not the way I remember it.”
Much of what we remember is forever lost in the physical world, however much it may shimmer and possess us now. Can we trust our memories as “facts?” And what if others disagree? How do we explain our creative process and answer their protests? Here are a few principles to assist you.
1. Trust your own lens of memory.
One clue to “my truth” and “your truth” is how we remember. In a seminal The New Yorker article, “But Enough About Me,” memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn discusses the history of memoir and the challenge of memory. When the Mendelsohn brothers hear a high-school choir singing a 1970s pop song, Matt turns to his brother Daniel and asks if he remembers that they sang that very song together in choir.
I looked at him in astonishment. “Choir? You weren’t even in the choir,” I said to him. I’d been president of choir, and I knew what I was talking about.
Now it was his turn to be astonished. “Daniel,” he said. “I stood next to you on the risers during concerts!”
This is typical of how other family members, while sharing the same childhoods, don’t necessarily share the same memories. More often than not, we each have wildly different versions of that shared past.
What is the memoirist’s responsibility in telling the truth, the whole truth? What is our responsibility to others who share our story?
We say: Vive la difference! Be prepared to encounter other people’s points of view, but trust your own lens of memory the most. After all, it is your story, your personal truth. You can always say to someone who strongly disagrees with your life story: “I look forward to your book on the subject.”
2. Get the facts as right as possible.
In her clear-eyed essay, “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” author Mimi Schwartz advises: “Go for the emotional truth, that’s what matters.” Get the facts as right as possible with research, asking questions,
3. Fill in the blanks of memory, but disclose uncertainty.
Many writers begin their memoirs with a sense that the details of their lives are lost — but some part of our brains is always watching, recording, and storing our life stories. When we consciously turn our minds back to those scenes, they often return in vivid detail.
If you don’t remember, you can always use techniques like: “I don’t recall the exact shade of his eyes, but what I do remember is how he never seemed to blink.”
One way to signal to the readers that you are telling your reconstructed truth is to use a disclaimer in the front matter. For example, “This story is true to the best of my ability and drawn from my memory, journals, and letters.”
Other techniques can signal to the reader that your memory is imperfect or that you’re using creative license to fill in the missing pieces. This is just what author Joyce Wadler did in a recent New York Times essay, “To the Best of My Memory, It Was Love.” Here are some of the ways she qualified her memories, while also making us trust her as a reliable narrator. Writing about her gorgeous cousin, who “made old men weep,” Wadler says:
I don’t remember men literally weeping, by the way — that’s hyperbole. And if I did I wouldn’t trust myself, because according to an article I read recently, what we consider a memory is actually a memory of a memory, which we refine every time we tell it. And as writers are known to be great embellishers and we are dealing with a story that is well over 55 years old, consider yourself forewarned.
If you, like Wadler, tell your life stories to the best of your memory, and still find some scenes remain inaccessible, just let the reader know that you are filling in blanks.
4. Add authentic dialogue.
Writing down remembered conversations is one of the most engaging techniques for a lively memoir. In working with and teaching memoir, we’ve noticed that the biggest sin of omission in many unpublished memoirs is the lack of realistic and exciting dialogue. Many beginning writers are wary of dialogue because they aren’t comfortable “putting words into other people’s mouths” or they don’t really remember what the other people in the story said.
“How can I write dialogue I barely remember between people? Or, when I wasn’t there to actually hear it?” many students ask. “What about conversations before I was even born? Do I just…well, make it all up?”
The answer is, you do recreate it. This so-called “embellished dialogue” is acceptable in memoir because the reader understands the writer is not a tape recorder. As memoirists, we are recalling to the best of our ability what was said. You can always remind the reader that you are writing conversations as you remember or imagine them. We all realize that memory is faulty and that different people may remember completely different snatches of conversation, depending upon their own points of view.
But it’s worth the risk of someone protesting, “That’s not what I said!” because dialogue is a vital element of storytelling and it’s important to include dialogue in every scene.
Well-crafted dialogue is also a technique for suggesting other points of view. It is a release from what can too often feel like being trapped in an elevator with a first-person narrator. Dialogue opens up the action to other voices and tones.
5. Be selective about when and how you show your work to others.
We always advise our students and clients not to show their memoir, especially as they are first drafting it, to family members or spouses, co-workers or even some friends. Your evolving memoir needs a good first reader, critique group, editor, or agent. These professionals and writing peers know how to nurture a growing book with honest and constructive criticism. They understand how vulnerable a creation can be in its first stages of life.
There will be a proper time to expose your memoir to other readers who are not writers or publishing professionals — and that should be when you have at least a finished first draft of your book. Only then should you consider involving non-writers in the process, such as family members or friends.
This is not to say that you can’t research, and ask questions of fact with others who shared your life story, or even at some final point show certain sections of your memoir to those about whom you’ve written. Just be mindful that the plot of any memoir is the evolution of the main character, the Self. So, “to thine own Self, be true.”
YOU TUBE on writing memoir: Nancy Pearl’s “Book Lust” interview with author.
.Excerpted with permission from YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann, published by Sasquatch Press,2014.This excerpt first appeared in the publishing blog by Jane Friedman, columnist for Publishers Weekly.
Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Great Read” and Indie Next by independent booksellers, and Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of America’s Wild Wolves,” chosen by Forbes as a “Ten Best Environment, Climate, Science, and Conservation Book” of the year. Her kids’ books are LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild, Catastrophe by the Sea and Wild Orca. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Oprah, and on NPR. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com