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.
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.
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.
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.