Memoir: Truth or Fiction?

memoir A relative, on reading my memoir, pointed out some errors relating to my memory of my brother’s funeral. I replied that a memoir consists of the writer’s memories, so I wasn’t worried about her recalling the event somewhat differently. Who is to say who is right? Memory is a very personal thing and most memoir writers and readers understand that. Of course you have to get matters of public record correct, such as who played in the Wimbledon Ladies Final in 2000. But does it really matter whether the funeral was one hour or two, or something in between?

My advice to memoir writers is to trust their own emotional truth – that’s what matters, not the detail of exactly who said what and where. My emotional truth in the case of the funeral was that, whether one hour or two, it was long! A writer can always cover themselves by saying ‘I recall’ and ‘I remember’, and I’ve done that on several occasions, but it does get repetitive if one keeps repeating these phrases.

In her book Writing the Memoir: from Truth to Art, Judith Barrington raises this issue. She also explains how one might need to adjust minor details in the interest of clarity e.g. reordering events to make the narrative work, approximating dialogue, and leaving out whatever makes the story too complicated for a stranger to grasp. For example my memoir spans some sixty years and obviously I can’t remember exact dialogue. But direct speech livens up the narrative and makes the writing more immediate and personal. So I’ve used what’s called ‘embellished dialogue’; it captures the essence of a conversation to the best of my ability.

That said, I don’t make up events that never happened, or people that never existed. It’s just that the characters in my memoir would tell a different story – but this is my own truth.

I think my way of writing makes the story cohesive and interesting to read. That’s memoir for you.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below.


One thought on “Memoir: Truth or Fiction?

  1. I totally agree. Whenever memory is involved, the genre cannot be pure non-fiction. It was W.G. Sebald (whose works I would highly recommend) said ‘memory’s a darkroom for the development of fictions.’ In that sense, anyone claiming perfect objectivity would be deluded. That’s not to detract from the truth of what’s written, but an acknowledgment of the reality that to get closer to the truth – the ’emotional truth’, as you say – subjectivity is essential


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