Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?

history

Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?

Of course not. You don’t change history

True. Well, at least you should not rewrite your personal history. As I’ve mentioned in another post, Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir? , the real downside of doing so is that you are unlikely to create a good story if you spend large parts of it hiding or distorting your past. There is a presumption in a memoir that you are telling the truth (unless you are a movie star or a politician—all bets seem to be off for them).

Having said that…

Unless you have perfect recall, there are likely moments which you can’t remember and are trivial—the color of the dress, the number of fish you caught, the weather that day. If it isn’t critical to your story, it makes sense to make it up rather than subject your reader to: “I think his name was Fido but that might have been the previous dog which was also a cocker spaniel.” Just call him Fido. Beyond the trivial detail, there are a range of other possibilities for not truth-telling.

Reasonable

There are instances when you might want to move beyond the literal or factual truth.

  • It was too much of a coincidence that they were both there at the same time—it had to have been planned.
  • Her nervousness and ill-temper made me think that she was seriously worried about something even though she denied it.
  • I can’t believe you’re accusing me of that,” when all you actually remember is a denial.

Stretching history

Maybe it’s okay; maybe not. It’s a judgment call.

  • Combining characters: Say you have a mess of cousins, none of whom will figure largely in your narrative. You could draw a character which represents your cousins and let him/her stand in for all. Of course, be prepared for Hey! There’s no cousin Lex!
  • Cutting corners: Readers get bored if an action is repeated too many times. Getting married, not getting married, reuniting, breaking it off, giving the engagement another try, a blow-up which calls the wedding off. Unless this is the main focus of your story and you plan to put a lot of meat on those bones, this repetition is tiresome even if true-to-life.  You might need to cut the number of repetitions so as not to lose the reader.

Questionable

Be very leery if you are deviating from the straight and narrow to:

  • Maintain it never happened. This is the Big Lie—protesting that the event is a figment of the whole world’s imagination and perhaps substituting a more palatable version.
  • Avoid a particular important but embarrassing incident. Or skipping over the event completely—like writing about going from one job to another without mentioning that you were fired.
  • Clean up your story. Here you sanitize the story to put yourself in a better light. The DUI was all a big misunderstanding which you ended up being penalized for.

 

So, your memoir is going to be a mix of truth and fiction no matter what. The trick is to keep your emotional honesty.

 

Do I Want to Drag up the Past if I Write My Memoirs?

past

Do I Want to Drag up the Past if I Write My Memoirs?

I get it, I do. Do you really want to drag up your awful past? I went through the same struggle when I was working with my writing teacher, Barbara Turner-Vesselago. She encouraged me to turn my semi-autobiographical writing into a novel. This is how I recollected it, looking back on that time:

I walked up the steep hill at Kimbercote. I remember climbing the hill, the reluctance as strong as my panting. I wasn’t sure there was enough there because mostly what I had was a feeling of a vast and terrifying darkness. Unrelieved abyss from which, on entry, one might never return. I remember the dread of willingly consigning myself to years back in the hell from which, I thought, I had escaped. But so strong was my wish to write that I ventured in. And found, to my growing delight, that it was not entirely a place of shadow and terror. That is was also a place of light and laughter. That in the wish to escape the night, I had forgotten the day.

And also, in a bastardization of Shakespeare (since I can’t remember the exact quote and in addition, it’s about jealousy), as I say, in a bastardization of Shakespeare—that the remembering fed upon itself and I remembered more and more.

So, in the long run, it was a gift. It gave me back who I was. Not all darkness, not all light. But me.


I think that you might find the same—that your past is more nuanced than you might think.

Remembering the good things of the past

So your past isn’t all dark, no matter how you might feel at the moment. Going back lets you remember the kind neighbor who always had a sympathetic ear and a cookie for you. Or the feeling of safety leaning into the soft leather of the policeman’s jacket. Or the teacher who gave you extra art lessons after class. The kindness of strangers and acquaintances is kindness nevertheless and worth remembering.

Even better, it allows you to recall the bright, warm, and touching moments that made you love the people you think so poorly of in the present. It fills out the picture which might have gotten telescoped into a caricature without gray tones.

Remembering the hard past

As a mature adult, you can look back on a scary or sad incident and provide the context that your younger self was incapable of. That Dad’s temper was more about mental illness than anything you did, no matter what you thought at the time (and might be lingering into the present). That Mother’s lack of care was not because you were unlovable but because of her alcoholism.

Something happens when you give yourself the space, time, and permission to revisit in detail incidents from your past. It opens up closed spaces or even ones you had forgotten were there. It makes writing a memoir worth it even if no one ever sees it except you.

This is not about forgetting, down-playing or even forgiving. You need to remember accurately and whether or not you forgive the people is an entirely different issue. This is about capturing who you were and looking at the hard times from a long enough distance to get a perspective.

For more on this, read Susan Shapiro’s interesting article, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.

Won’t I Hurt People If I Write a Memoir?

hurt

Won’t I Hurt People If I Write a Memoir?

Some people are prevented from writing what they really feel about events or people in their lives (i.e. their memoir) by the fear they will hurt people they care about in doing so.

The difference between hurt and interpretation

In my semi-autobiographical novel, Kimono Spring, this is how I depicted my sister:

When we got home, Mommy cleared the pepper and salt and napkin holder off the kitchen table. She brought out the package she had gotten at Ogilvy’s.

Diane held the paper bag the package had been in. “Go away,” she said, turning to me.

“Won’t!”

“You’d better!”

“Oh yeah, says who?” I said bravely.

She took a step towards me and I backed up involuntarily. “Says me,” and she stepped even closer.

“Enough,” said Mommy in a tired voice. “Julie can see, too.”

“But it’s mine.”

Mommy folded back the tissue. “It’s just looking, Diane. It doesn’t matter.”

I bustled past a molten Diane and pushed myself right against the table, just to show her.

I depict my sister as overweening, superior and mean. Obviously, she would not agree with that interpretation. But I wrote the novel from the point of view of a seven-year-old, dealing with her ten-year-old sister. As an adult, even I might agree that the portrait is very black and white but that is how a seven-year-old would see the world and therefore, the people in it.

What you write is always going to be from your view. How can it be otherwise? You’re not trying to write your life story from someone else’s perspective.

And anyhow, unless your memoir is populated with saints—never angry, vindictive, destructive or sly (boring memoir, by the way)—nobody will agree with your characterization of themselves. Despite your efforts to be honest and even-handed, you’ll still get I never said that. You started it, not me. My son is not a bully. I don’t have a big nose. Etc.

So what others might read as hurtful you may see as interpretation of what happened.

How to deal with the fear of inflicting hurt

Still, you don’t set out to hurt people in writing a memoir. But writing with this fear in mind will restrict what you record even if you’re not aware of it. Unconsciously, you might gloss over an important event because it puts your mother in a bad light. Or soften the impact of an action by your brother so that its hurt doesn’t look as if it stung as much as it did.

The answer?

Write it as if no one will ever read it. As if it is a very extensive diary. Not meant for anyone but you. That way, you can tell your truth and not somebody else’s or worse, how you think they want you to think/believe.

When you’ve got the whole thing, revisit the issue. You may be surprised that over the course of the entire work, your depiction is more generous or even-handed than you had thought, even when writing it. But it is a question to pose once you’ve recorded what you want to say—not before.

I’ll do a post sometime on how to handle reactions when you do release your memoir to a larger audience than your computer.

Emotional Truth in Your Writing

emotional

Emotional Truth in Your Writing

What is emotional truth?

I know you have experienced it—otherwise, you wouldn’t want to be a writer. You know it when you’re reading a novel which is, by definition, fiction, made up, untrue. And yet, you feel its truth, its emotional truth. It touched something in you which was real. Mike Ruso, a writer and photographer, has some interesting insights if you want to explore more of its definition, but I’d like to focus on, not what it feels like to experience it, but how to create it.

What is emotional truth for writers?

It’s one thing to experience this honesty as a reader, but how does it feel when you are writing that way? The best I can do it is to describe my struggles as I journaled about them.

I feel like I am not getting down to the core—the place from which I write—the deep place. It feels very at the surface, perhaps because I was thinking of the characters as vehicles for the essays[1]. Now I want to think of them as existing on their own, without reference to anything else.

So, where is that deep spot in the middle of my chest from which all else flows? It doesn’t feel like I have accessed that for a long time and it is this that I think is lacking in David[2]. That one true thing. Which is more than one true thing but it is about true things. It is a sinking down to allow a bubbling up. Who is David?

The fantastical, illogical, and moving side of my brain has not gotten much exercise lately. To wit: none. And I fear it is atrophying due to lack of use. What I continually fear.

Although maybe because it hasn’t been used for a while, it’s like the muscles in the front of my shoulder. Because I was hunched forward for so long, they went unused. Now that I am straighter, they are called upon to function and are remarkably weak. Who knew. So now, the movements I can make with them are limited and painful. But I am making progress.

I hope the same can be said of this thing which I seek.

Not a definition, I know, but perhaps approximating how to know, as a writer, when you are writing from a place from which emotional truth can arise.

How do I get it in my writing?

Ah, the $64,000 question. It is the pinnacle of writing, which all writers strive to reach. It is what makes writing magic.

I have a simple but not easy answer: honesty.

When I think I have approached emotional truth in my writing, it is when I have been completely honest. I think it is the willingness to show up naked on the page, to bring your scared and trembling self to the writing, not hiding behind technique or elegant writing. It is writing about feeling unattractive and unloved rather than about heroines who are beautiful and worshiped. It is the willingness to go to the places in yourself which are raw and writing from there.

There is no paint-by-numbers method. Push yourself to be honest with yourself, to be honest on the page. And then, every once in a while, emotional truth breaks through. And every once in a while, so does the magic.


[1] Referring to Cross My Heart and Other Tales of Life and Art, soon to be released.

[2] Referring to hero in the Honest One, a novel on the consequences of stealing ideas

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

truth

Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir?

Depends what you mean by truth.

Yes for the major events in your life. Really, isn’t this the time to tell your eldest that he really wasn’t born three months premature? If you don’t tell the truth about the big things, why bother calling it a memoir?

No for the small stuff. You cannot possibly remember every detail of your life so you may have to include what was likely or expected to make the narrative flow.

Yes for the emotional truth. I will have another post on this as it is an ability all writers need to develop but I want to focus on how it applies to memoirs.

An example of emotional truth in memoirs

Say you want to record how you recovered and thrived after your divorce. But you need to deal with the betrayal which prompted it.

One way you could do this is:

Larry seemed anxious that evening but things had gotten to the point that I didn’t care enough to ask. He came into the living room after dinner.

He just stood there. He cleared his throat. I looked up.

“…you know that things aren’t working out between us.”

“And whose fault is that?”

He waved a hand and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to fight any more. I want a divorce.”

“What!”

He didn’t look up. “I’ve found someone else.”

“What! You bastard! Who is it? I bet it’s that Rachel. She’s been all over you since she and Amir moved here.”

“No, not Rachel. Amir.”

So, this is fine as far as it goes. And although there is the emotional honesty of simply writing down the event, you also need to include the shock, tears, anger, and disbelief you felt and continued to feel for the months following. How did it affect you? Did it make you question what was real or who you were? Did you wonder whether you were a true woman if you married a gay man?

Public versus private face

I know that this is tough to do. And that it asks you to go deeper than you perhaps had originally anticipated.

But people already know your public face—the one you turn to the world. Everything is fine. Yes, my daughter is great. No, I’m okay financially. Never worry about getting old. Don’t wonder how to cope without a spouse.

Your public face, while safe and comfortable, is less compelling than letting the reader see the true you. The private face of the human being with her doubts, fears and triumphs.

Write from your private space. At least for the first draft. Once you have a complete manuscript, then decide whether or what you want to alter. The range can be from publication to nobody ever seeing it and all stops in-between.

The truth of remembrance

While I’m here, so to speak, just a word about how you handle the early days of your life. Obviously, you know what is coming in later years but beginnings larded with Little did I know, As I found out later, He was all charm then, can get tiresome and more importantly, doesn’t present those days as you truly experienced them, untainted with the knowledge of future events and without regret and revenge. Let the reader take the journey with you rather than throwing out constant bits of foreshadowing of the traumas to come.