Truth in Story for Memoir or Fiction #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Life is messy. Very messy. Things don’t make sense. Sometimes we can’t figure out why someone does something. As humans, we want reasons for actions. We want order. And we want resolution to life stories. 

Enter – the value of truth in memoir or fiction.  

Our job as writers of memoir or fiction is to find the orderliness in story; the reasons for actions; and of course, the resolutions found at the end of the tale we tell. Make no mistake. This is difficult work. Especially for memoir.

Memoir needs to be true. Absolutely. No question there. If you change the setting [where things happen], you are writing fiction. If you change the timeline of events [what happened first, etc.], you are writing fiction. Dialogue needs to be something that the real person would normally say. Don’t worry about exactly what the person said on October 15, 2004. You will drive yourself crazy.

Memoir is your truth, your belief of what really happened in a scene. I’ve read that it is okay change people’s names, but you need to place a disclaimer in the front matter of the book to say the names have been changed. Has anyone received different advice on using real names of NON-famous people? Please share what you know here at Adventures in Writing.

Fiction, on the other hand, can be based on a true incident or real facts and real people, but the writer doesn’t need to stick to the facts as she would in memoir. Think of historical fiction here or real murders or kidnappings. Many great story ideas come from factual events. A writer begins with fact and then fictionalizes what happens, what the characters think, why they behave the way they do. Sometimes I get tied up in the facts; like the fact that a rip current has never happened in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, that I know of, yet that’s where I placed my most recent story sold to Cricket Magazine where a rip current was the major action in the story.   

But if we get back to that “messy life” and truth that I started the post with, the biggest job of the writer is to write a story that seems truer than life, whether it’s memoir or fiction. People read to discover the reasons for actions. And except for some literary stories, readers want closure at the end of the tale. They want resolution because life doesn’t always offer that resolution.

This is extremely difficult in memoir because, like me, you may not exactly know the reasons—and feelings—for every event you include in the memoir. How many times can I say I felt insecure; felt like an imposter or worried that I’d fail and that would be the end of my college career. Too many, according to my editor. And I agree with her. Of course, that leaves me staring at the computer screen and the scene I’m working on to discover “what else” Victoria could have been feeling at the time. It’s about going deeper into the emotion of the scene and not just relying on the surface emotion – insecure, imposter, worry. This is what writers need to do in memoir as well as fiction.

I hope you’ve found some insight in what I’ve written. Please offer insight of your own. It would be truly appreciated. Please ask any questions about my college memoir in the comments section of Adventures in Writing. Thanks so much!

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25 thoughts on “Truth in Story for Memoir or Fiction #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. Hi Victoria – there's lots of different ways of portraying a memoir – I keep coming across them now. One definitely needs to close the loop though … as you say – discover the reasons for the action … that's part of the story. Alex says it right … all the best – Hilary

  2. Sometimes portraying the truth in a memoir would be hard, especially if it's messy and about yourself or someone you're close too. But I'm not disagreeing that it's important to stick to the truth when writing one.

  3. I have trouble too with understanding and expressing emotion that's specific and is shown through the character and their actions and words without being boring or redundant. Thanks for this post, Victoria!

  4. I wish memoir writing would just be that – writing what happened or what was important to one’s life story. Taking all those factors into account makes it much harder!

    At the moment, I have a disclaimer in the front of my travel memoir, indicating that the name of one person has been changed to protect that individual’s privacy. That’s because everyone else agreed with me using their first name or boat name.

    I’m now thinking of taking that disclaimer sentence out entirely, as it really doesn’t matter. I thought it would be “funny” to write it like that and let the reader guess which character had their name changed. But, as I said, it doesn’t serve any purpose, really. And, taking out that line frees up space for another line. 🙂

  5. You make a great point that I hadn't considered about writing memoir. It's true that often when writing fiction I think to myself, if only real life could be tied up in a bow like this. I haven't written memoir, but I can imagine that would be a challenge for me to find that sense of closure you mentioned.

  6. These are really valuable thoughts about both the distinctions between how fiction and memoir utilize truth and the role of closure, to in a sense interpret, or to provide meaning for the events we narrate. I guess I fall more into the literary camp here, where I really try to resist that interpretation while at the same time making the story rich for the reader to interpret. But here too I think there's a sense that my job is to present *truth*, just not the literal truth, that the story in a sense becomes more real than reality, because its mystery is there staring us in the face. I wonder about this a lot… thank you for sharing and spurring on my thinking again. Cheers! : )

  7. Thank you for your kind words, Hilary. I truly appreciate them. Yes, memoirists as well as fiction writers should "close the loop" of their stories.

    Thanks for sharing your insight here at Adventures in Writing. Have a beautiful weekend!

  8. Truth is absolutely difficult to get to, especially in memoir, Natalie. Remember that it is you the writer of the memoir's truth; how you felt about the situation, whether it is in hindsight, looking back on it with your present knowledge, or told raw at the moment of the action.

    Thank you, too, for sharing your insight here at Adventures in Writing. Have a beautiful weekend!

  9. My pleasure, Dawn. Believe me; I have trouble with showing and expressing emotion in my fiction and my memoir. Many times, it is redundant. We just need to keep going.

    I appreciate your insight here at Adventures in Writing. Have a beautiful weekend!

  10. I wish memoir would be just a recounting of what happened too, Liesbet. First remember, I'm no expert. Far from it, actually! But I think it doesn't matter if you've only changed one name or several. Your travel memoir is your story about what happened in your life. Go for it, my dear!

    I always appreciate your sharing your insight here at Adventures in Writing. Have a beautiful weekend!

  11. All writers should make their stories true to the world they have created in that story. In literature, perhaps the writer's job is more to guide the reader into discovering the reader's own truth through what happens in the story.

    I truly appreciate your insight here at Adventures in Writing, Jimmy. Have a beautiful weekend!

  12. I've started planning my memoir, but it's a lot harder than it seems. I like how you say it's similar to fiction writing and how it's all about the emotions and reasons why things happened.

    I struggle with timelines the most. I have a lot of gaps in my memories from childhood, but all the emotions are there. Is it bad to write out of order without mentioning much of a timeline?

  13. The reader needs to know where you, the character, are in space and time. Not knowing your story, JJ, or the point of your memoir journey, I would suggest using different chapters for your gaps in time, or you could say something like:

    Five years later, I still felt frustrated/upset or couldn't stop thinking about [whatever the last thought/happening/feeling you just discussed].

    You may set up your memoir timeline any way you wish, but you need to have reasons for your choices. If the "gaps in memory” are important to the story, you need to tell the reader you can’t remember exactly what happen when [whatever] happened. Remember that a memoir is only a small part of your life experience. You only include experiences that are important for the story or point you are trying to make.

    All the luck with this, JJ. Thanks for leaving a comment here at Adventures in Writing.


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