I’ve never met a memoirist who has started out writing their memoir in the same way as I have. But among those I have spoken to, one thing is consistent. They all kept a diary. Or they kept correspondence. Or they kept records, whether in a blog or a word doc. That’s useful, because our memories are notoriously unreliable and although the premise of a memoir more flexible with regards to THE truth, than say, an autobiography which is the factual and verifiable truth, a memoir still must be A truth. Your personal truth, as far as you can make it so and tell a winning story at the same time. Telling the truth is your pact with the readers. They want to read your memoir because it actually happened. They buy memoir as opposed to a novel, for this very reason.
Rule: Don’t break this sacred pact.
Exception: If you do break it, tell them up front in the author’s note. Tell them how and why you did and they will read your truth allowing for the fact that your personal truth changes, just like theirs.
Because personal truth does change over time as perspective is added. That you understood the truth of your motivations at one time for a particular decision, does not make it necessarily or wholly true now. Maybe you are writing a divorce memoir. You may have left your good for nothing husband because he didn’t prioritise your relationship over his sports fanaticism. That is the truth (or so you thought). Years later you realise that the reason you got with him in the first place is because your self esteem dictated a choice of a partner who treated you as second best, perhaps as your father always did. And the real reason you left your husband was actually because your self esteem had been elevated to a place where you were attracted to a partner who treated you as a priority. Both are true, but perspective and self knowledge has been added. Thus your truth then is not the same as your truth now (and most likely, it will change in the future). This can’t be helped. You will write your memoir in the way you see the truth at that moment in time. Whilst more perspective is certainly valuable, there will always be more. And more. And more. And in most cases perspective will change your personal truth, whether simply by nuance, or by radical mind-shift.
How far can you stretch the truth? That depends (is the answer). Because there are nuances of truth telling, from omission (unconscious and conscious) to overt obfuscation. And because you’re writing a memoir, which will necessarily include the influences of other people’s lives, ethically you must stretch it out of respect for others’ privacy (and tell your readers why). Most memoirists will change names. This ‘lie’ is a given. Others will change places, and physical details. Again, in my view this is important, acceptable and necessary, especially because your personal truth is likely to be biased in your favour because you are human.
I’ve ‘lied’ a great deal in some memoirs, and not so much in others. Specifically I’ve lied about the extent of what I considered to be other people’s faults. I’ve minimised them in order to compensate for personal bias, partly because demonizing others is part of how we unconsciously stretch the truth. But most importantly I haven’t lied about my own faults as far as I am aware. And I have never lied about my personal or emotional truth. The reason is simple. I consider that I am allowed to tell my own story, but not other people’s. But drawing this line in practice though, is much more difficult. In a relationship for example, where does your story stop and your partner’s story start? I’ve written about several instances of abuse for example. What gives me the right to term someone else’s behaviour as ‘abusive’? And to describe their actions? In answer to the first question, it is helpful to do research on the concepts you are writing about. As a memoirist (with a fascination about yourself) psychology is your friend. This is true of all writers, but especially true in my opinion for memoirists because you are describing real people and calling someone abusive or describing their character incorrectly as a statement of fact, can be libellous. Nuance is important. Avoiding definite conclusions is also an option.
Compare ‘he is an abuser’ with ‘I felt abused’. One is your conclusion. The other is your personal truth. I’m not saying you shouldn’t call it like it is. The former is far stronger than the latter. But I am saying that you have many different options (and only you can decide which one(s) you take). Even better, let the readers draw their own conclusions.
“As the blood trickled from my head, Gus stood above me, looking twice his usual size, and shouted, ‘You disgust me. You disgust everyone. You’re nothing. You’re from the gutter. Do you want to be treated like the piece of filth you are?’” – Some Never Awaken
I’ve not mentioned the word abuse here at all. The line I draw is that their actions affected me in a way which, if I left them out, would destroy the reader’s trust in the story. It would leave unexplained questions, and a plot hole. Additionally, I don’t start off lying in the first draft, or even the second. In those drafts I tell the truth. And I leave the disguising until later.
Let’s say that you find someone else’s actions abusive towards you. But you know the reason for their actions is that they were themselves abused. Their actions towards you are part of your story. The abuse towards them is part of theirs. And as far as you are able, you must keep your story about you. But sometimes it is not possible because the story about you is also about them. What then?
Some Never Awaken was the memoir in which I stretched the truth the most. In it, I go on holiday with two of my friends. I mixed their character traits up. I mixed their life stories up (all traits and events were true, but the two memoir characters were a blend of my two friends). I altered professions, physical details, in short everything possible to make sure that the readers, even those who know me, couldn’t know who it was. I could not have omitted the part they played on that holiday since the realisations and the journey we made was interlinked. Yet it was necessary to disguise—most heavily—their real identities because in order to tell my story which was the breakdown of our friendship (and why), I had to stray a little into their stories. There’s part of me that still feels guilty about this. But another part is satisfied that no-one will ever recognise them. Yet even with this extent of obfuscation, the events and feelings that I experienced were all true. The integrity in your personal and emotional truth must remain intact. It’s a fine line and only you can decide what is right for you.
In some cases you may choose to market your work under fiction. This may free you. But beware. If you do, then your book must be, in many ways, better. Readers forgive a less plotted book if it is memoir because it follows real life events. If you write a fictional book, it must be more dazzling, you must provide perspective for the other characters and generally make it more airtight. You cannot simply write your memoir change the names and put it out as fiction (although this seems like the most obvious solution). Why? Two (more) reasons.
1. You will be found out. Which I suppose is ok if you are ok with being known as a liar among your friends and family.
2. You risk falling into the ‘uncanny valley’.
What is the uncanny valley?
In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. – Wikipedia
In memoir-touted-as-fiction, the reader will feel that your fiction is eerily real, uncomfortably real and if you have blended reality with the obfuscation necessary for memoir, they will attempt to resolve their uncomfortable feelings by making assumptions about your work (probably the wrong ones). You say it’s fiction, but that—the reader suspects—is a lie. Thus—the reader decides—it must all be true. You don’t want this.
Market it as the memoir it is. Obfuscate and omit if you must. But tell the reader up front, so that you have provided a ready and easy solution to any eery feelings that may arise.