I recently had the privilege of presenting at the Capital City Writers Association’s Write on the Red Cedar conference in Lansing. It was a delight. I had such a great time speaking on the topic of memoirs and personal essays that I thought I’d share some of the takeaways from my session here in a little series. Because you’ve always wondered what things I might know. Here are some of them.
The truth of your memoir has to revolve around fact, right? Otherwise, you may be writing something super, but it’s probably not memoir. At the same time, one of the greatest challenges to writing memoir is that facts also have a tendency to obscure the truth of your story at times. Sometimes you have to leave them out. Or even change them a bit.
So, definitely stick to facts, but don’t stick to too many facts. You’re welcome! Good luck with that. It’s a confusing bit of advice, I know, but writing memoir is about filtering through all the facts, choosing the ones that contribute to the truth of the story you’re telling and leaving the ones that are irrelevant or distracting in your memory, but out of your memoir.
For instance, perhaps you’ve gotten to the end of a memoir and thought, “Gosh, for a really interesting person, this guy doesn’t seem to have very many friends.” Well, he probably does. But not every relationship in your life — even significant relationships — have to do with the core story you’re telling. In Swedish Lessons, for example, the primary person I communicate with back home is my best friend, Alisa. In reality, communicated with many people. There were other emails, other phone calls. All clumped together in a book, it might seem like I had no reason to be lonely. But in real time, even if I received emails from five different people a week, they would be spaced days apart. They would have taken 30 seconds to read. They would not have eradicated my loneliness. Including so many communications with friends into a condensed account of my time would have made it seem otherwise.
In fact, I’m closer to my mom than perhaps anyone else in the world, but she’s hardly in the book at all. I spoke to her all the time. She even came to visit me in Sweden, the week before I left. She stayed a week, we travelled and it was great. But my conversations with her throughout my stay, peppered with veiled optimism as they were, nor that trip at the tail end, in any way helped tell the story I was telling. It was just stuff that happened.
Can you imagine if memoirs were a complete retelling of all the stuff that happened in people’s lives? It would be unbearable. Like, being stuck inside your insufferable great aunt’s Facebook feed with no way out. Ugh.
In writing my memoir, I even found that the facts of timeline got in the way of truth sometimes. In the telling of a story about someone trapped in an interminably dull situation in an entertaining way, pacing is incredibly important. While it is absolutely true that my character was driven by desperate boredom for much of the book, sometimes events happened too close together, or even in an order that made no sense in the jigsaw puzzle of good storytelling. So I adjusted their placement in time to better fit the narrative flow, pacing and support that truth about my character. I included this in my little disclaimer at the beginning of the book. I did wrestle with the feeling that I was lying for a while. Because even a tiny rearrangement of minor facts is, by definition, a lie, correct? But when lined up in the correct order and pacing, it felt more like lying, because it didn’t tell the story correctly. It didn’t tell the true story. There’s lying about the facts and there’s lying about the truth. Sometimes you have to choose. And resist the urge to make those decisions based on what makes your character look better. And then add a disclaimer.
This is a great responsibility. There are other people in your story, of course, so you owe it to them, even if they generally suck as people, to tell the absolute truth. Only mess with minor or irrelevant facts. You are God in your memoir; don’t be a cruel and selfish one. As long as every decision about facts is made in sincere service of the truth, and only the truth, you’ll end up with a better story.
Check out the other topics in this memoir writing series: