Should you stick to the facts in a memoir

A memoir is a literary work but unlike fiction it has to be based on truth. This can sometimes be a problem because when we recall memories we don’t necessarily remember things accurately. Your memory of a specific event may well differ from someone else’s recollections of the same event. Not only can memories become distorted or blurred over time but memories are subjective and so the truth or reality about a shared memory will not necessarily be the same. So should you stick to the facts in a memoir?

Well, when you write your memoir you should be as truthful and accurate as you can but you should also feel free to leave bits out and organise and structure your memories into something which you think will have more appeal for your readers.

You can still be creative

Just because you are telling a true story this doesn’t mean that you can’t embrace the storytelling techniques used in fiction which are used to make a story more engaging and interesting. The basic elements of a story (characters, setting, plot, conflict, theme and dialogue) may not all be relevant in a memoir but knowing and understanding what these elements are will help you to be more creative in your writing.

You can’t make stuff up

Any type of writing that relies on memory is open to comment or criticism from family members or anybody else that shared the same experiences. But remember, you are the writer of your story and so your interpretation is your version of the truth. This is very different to deliberately making stuff up.

There have been famous examples of fake memoirs which made good stories but which betrayed the trust of their readers by passing them off as truth. So, if you want to introduce any elements that could be challenged, then make sure you include a caveat/disclaimer which makes this clear. For example, if there are some facts you are not sure of simply add a line which says ‘I don’t recall the exact details but …’.

Check the facts in your memoir

Even if your memory of a time or event is different to someone else you should nevertheless aim to get your facts as accurate as possible. If you can’t rely on your own memory then do some more research by looking back at original sources and by asking questions. You could also ask anybody else involved to check your story but don’t let them try to rewrite it or challenge you over something they would prefer you not to include. Just stick with those that give constructive and supportive feedback.

Add some dialogue to your memoir

Conversations between characters are an important part of story telling. By introducing some dialogue into your memoir you can really help bring it to life. However, because it is unlikely you will be able accurately to recall conversations from the past, use what memories you do have and your imagination to recreate what might have been said. But once again do tell your readers what you are up to. 

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth”

Albert Camus’s quote “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” highlights how many fictional writers use their own experiences to create stories. If you have memories you want to share but feel unable to reveal in a memoir, then may be you should consider writing a fictional work which draws on your experiences and memories but uses fictional characters and places. The opening question should you stick to the facts in a memoir will then become redundant and you will free to write whatever you like.

Related blog posts:

Writing a memoir – finding your topic and theme
Start writing your memoir

Should you stick to the facts in a memoir?

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