Today’s guest post is adapted from OUR LIFE IS A BOOK: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann, published by Sasquatch Press, 2014.
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 siblings and 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.”
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, checking original sources, journals, and newspapers. Ask for help to check these facts from those who were also there. But if your fact-checking is met with unreasonable demands for edits, threats, or angry arguments by readers who won’t allow you to tell your truth—they lose the privilege of being part of your writing process. We know of one memoirist who, while writing his memoir, was bullied by his family; several siblings and his father tried to censor and control his memoir, demanding to read and “correct” it before publication; they even threatened lawsuits before and after his book was published.
Obviously, those relatives lost any voice or rights to be consulted on facts or any other aspects of the memoir. And after his book was published, parts of the family shunned the author—which wasn’t such a bad thing, considering the toxic family dynamic.
Remember Joan Didion’s famous maxim: if you remember it, it’s true.
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 sketchy 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.
It is hard enough to remember scenes from your life without having family, friends, or observers—whether well meaning or competitive—correcting your angle of vision with their own. 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, and how much harm unskilled probing and tampering can cause.
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.
- Lee Gutkind, author of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Non-Fiction, explains that creative nonfiction “presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Gutkind’s Creative Nonfiction magazine is one of the best places to find quality non-fiction and memoir.
- Robert Root and Michael Steinberg’s anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, covers the landscape of some of the best memoirists at work today.
Excerpted with permission from OUR LIFE IS A BOOK: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann, published by Sasquatch Press, 2014.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books. Her memoir I Want to Be Left Behind, was selected as an Indie Next Great Read by independent booksellers and a Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year by The Christian Science Monitor. Her first memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, was a Best Spiritual Book of the Year. Peterson has written for The New York Times, Utne Reader, and Oprah magazine. Since 1990, Peterson has taught private classes and helped many of her students publish. She lives in Seattle. Find out more at her website.
Sarah Jane Freymann is a New York City literary agent who has helped shepherd books onto bestseller lists, mentored fledging writers, and helped authors transform their lives through memoir. Together Brenda and Sarah Jane have taught their Life Story writing seminars on the East and West Coasts. Find out more at her website.