To a non-writer, it might seem that writing a memoir is easy. You know what happened—just tell the truth.
Here’s a passage from a good writer that is on point.
The passage is on page thirty of the novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson. The protagonist of the novel is a young woman who scarcely ever talks, whom the reader does not yet know well. She is sitting, virtually silent, with an elderly minister in his kitchen, drinking coffee. He has just told her an event about angels.
She said, “I liked that story.”
He looked away from her and laughed. “It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won’t. You’re right not to talk. It’s a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Read that last sentence again—Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.
Most people don’t suffer under the burden of being writers. Truth in writing is more complicated than most people understand. Once we writers start talking—writing—there’s no telling what we’ll say.
What we writers say is for the good of the story we are telling. The good of the story we are telling becomes our motivation, which is paramount. Truth notwithstanding.
If the need of the story is for its protagonist to step off the porch and to trip over the cat, then that is what the protagonist does—even though the truth of the incident was that it was the bottom step of the inside staircase, and it was the dog.
Lila is a novel. Fiction is one thing; memoir is another. I write memoir. It’s harder.
For one thing, the people you write about in memoir are still alive, or they may be, and they have a right to privacy—which is true even if they’re dead. For another, you yourself have a right to privacy, even when you seem deliberately to have opened yourself up to scrutiny. But the main difficulty about your memoir is that your memoir is not about you. Your memoir uses you to support its real subject. Its real subject is your theme for writing.
What are you writing about? Not you. Frankly, no one is much interested in you except a few friends and relations. It’s your theme that is of general interest—you hope.
Let’s say your memoir’s theme is how pet ownership has opened up your life to greater awareness of God. In that case, it really doesn’t matter if the accident was prompted by the porch and the cat or by the stairs and the dog. Either is relevant to the theme.
However, you know that it was the stairs and the dog, but you’re going to use the porch and the cat.
That’s the truth trouble, right there.
Why do you use the porch and the cat? You write that it was the porch and the cat because, later in your memoir, at the climax of your theme—when the awareness of God comes vividly upon you—that event actually did happen on the porch.
You decide you’ll use the porch and the cat for the accident so that your memoir, as a whole—rising as it does toward the God revelation—can occur on the porch, where it really did occur. That’s the best way for the revelation scene to be literarily cohesive with the accident event.
It’s not easy.
How do you balance?
Or do you serve each of these needs at the same time by using techniques of fiction, without stepping across the line into fiction?
Readers of your book want to be excited by your memoir, not because it is about you, but—because of the gift you have made to them of your theme—it is about them.
Yes, you are providing detail about your life and your events, but their attraction to your memoir is that you have allowed them to think about themselves in new ways. Their lives and their events have been affirmed, or tested, or questioned, or balanced by what you have said about yours.
They are drawn into your memoir by this. But they stay inside your book because of what you have revealed to them about them.
Each draft of your story perfects your story, while each draft is a little less true. That’s because once you start to write your story, there’s no telling what you’ll say.