As a reader and writer of both fiction and memoir, I find that a common denominator for what makes a story good and one that I want to read is what I call “essential truth.” Essential truth is when the story’s plot, emotional current, characters, and dialogue convey authenticity and “ring true.” This takes place in fiction and in memoir whether the story is Steinbeck’s portrayal of life during the Great Depression, Mary Doria Russell’s rendering of a time-traveling, space-traveling priest who returns to earth to tell his tale, or Frank McCourt’s depiction of life as a poor child in Ireland. When a story exhibits this quality of essential truth, the reader is free to inhabit it without feeling manipulated by an author using deception, or working with a hidden agenda. Interest level in any given story is a subjective reader experience. Believability too is to some degree also subjective. But I believe guidelines exist for writing not only quality work, but ethical work as well.
It’s important to note that while the reader of any given story might have a subjective experience of its essential truthfulness, the only control that the writer has over this quality is her intention in writing the story. One could write the absolute truth and find people don’t believe it anyway. All we can do as artists is to search our own motivations and strive to write the truest stories we can.
I’ve come up with a few guidelines that serve me well when rendering my own stories. I find them equally useful when I’m reading finished work or working with my memoir and fiction-writing students.
Essential truth in fiction writing occurs when:
1. The story is not just a rearrangement of real events, pretending they are products of the writer’s imagination.
2. The book is written with the intention of writing a high quality, engaging story rather than just pandering to current trend, writing style, or imitation in order to write what’s hot in the marketplace.
3. The similarity of the fictional story to real life is not for the primary purpose of sneakily exposing someone else, or making commentary.
4. The writer is consciously choosing fiction, with elements of fantasy and imagination, as the best way to tell the story they want to tell rather than using fiction only as a guise behind which they hide.
This leads us to the discussion of writing the “essential truth” in memoir. By its very nature, memoir should be true, right? That’s sort of the whole idea. This actually happened. That’s what makes it different than fiction.
But many truth lines have been crossed in the genre of memoir. Some of these lines have been not just crossed, but obliterated by blatant falsehoods being represented as memoir.
It should also be said that opinions vary on the notion of “essential truth” in memoir writing. Hard-liners say that memoir writers have no latitude when it comes to The Truth. They say that even changing names, compressing timelines, or omitting facts are all out of bounds in their definition of ethical memoir writing. While I understand the sentiment here, and am a major stickler for truth telling, I don’t think that it’s nearly so black and white as that.
Essential truth in memoir occurs when:
- The writer portrays the events as they took place and the story is told without intentional or careless misrepresentation of the facts.
- The writer owns that the story is her own perception of the events and writes a truthful and thorough disclaimer for any facts that she intentionally changed or omitted and for what purposes these changes were made.
- The writer owns and discloses his agenda, if there is one.
- The memoirist writes a story which bincludes both flattering and unflattering details.
- The story is fair, open to the fact that others who lived the same circumstances may see them differently and that there exist unknowns, even to the author.
When motives of commercial gain, revenge, fame, or “making a statement” enter into a writer’s work, there is the chance that the writing becomes twisted, biased, or even just influenced to such a degree that its authenticity is impaired. I’m sure that not every great work of literature has been written with ultra-pure motives. I’m also sure that pure intentions have not always resulted in great works. But as a writer—indeed, as a person—I want to strive for both excellence and integrity in what I do.
As writers, we must look for those elements in our own writing, both fiction and memoir, that ring false. We should probe our own motives for falsehoods, biases, and agendas. We should ask for the input of trusted and worthy advisors to catch what we miss and trust their guidance. We should—both in the interest of the quality of our writing and the quality of ourselves— strive to tell our most essential truth.
How do you, as a writer struggle with elements of truth in your fiction and fictional elements in your memoir writing? How do you balance your ethics as you choose and write your stories? Where do you draw the lines between memoir and fiction?
I’m so glad to read this. After reading a book and listening to a course on writing that both were hardcore about EVERYTHING had to be absolute truth “as part of the contract with the reader.” The essence of what I was writing was true: the feelings, the end result, etc. But the people involved in the scene are long gone and I could not get their experience/perspective of the event. So I got creative about that scene, while keeping true to what happened to the protagonist. I agonized over whether I now had to label the book as fiction, even though it is a real life story. So, thank you!
I know that truth and fiction are often blurred in my writings, because I take a real experience in my life and embellish it with fiction. In doing this, I can never call it memoir wriitng. My writing is always fiction. In my writings, I don’t see clear boundaries between truth and fiction. But I do understand that memorists do write with essential truth in their memoirs.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embellishing the truth as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Its your story so tell it as you see fit.
In fiction we generally proceed from theme to facts while in memoir we go from facts to fiction This is useful in feeling our way through to the truth.
In fiction, we start with a feeling or an image that is a basis for theme. SO..our theme might be something about loneliness. Of course, you don’t know everything about loneliness when you start and the process will bring you to understanding.The fiction writer then begins to ask, “Who is lonely? Where is this person? What is this person doing when the story starts?” Then the writer finds characters and actions, etc., to support the loneliness theme we wish to write about.
In memoir, we start with the details of what happened. “What can this mean?” we ask ourselves. Our mother did this and that. “What can it mean that she did that?” Only after having the details, the truth, can we begin to perceive the truth.
This has always been helpful to me in evaluating truth in memoir.
I am currently struggling with whether or not to use real (first) names of family and friends in my memoir. Telling the truth is important to me, and it does seem strange to change the names of real people in my life. At the same time, I wonder if it could be more liberating and allow more honesty in character to use pseudonyms for certain family members and friends. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I believe that telling the truth is important but you don’t always have to when writing. You can decided. You can bend the truth a little bit to make the story more interesting or better if you want. That’s why writing is so cool because you can make it to be what you want. If there was a whole bunch of restrictions in writing then you wouldn’t be as free or let your mind wonder off to create a great story. I prefer writing fiction because
I like to be free when writing. Writing memoirs is a little frustrating because I don’t considered my life to be that interesting to write a story about it.
I believe in always telling the truth although I also believe that some skeletons should remain in the closet. With that being said, I believe it depends on the story being told whether or not the truth should be written. I do believe that there should be some kind of ethical boundaries and guidelines. I enjoy reading mostly fictional stories because I like enjoying the imagination someone has to offer.
I believe writing has a lot of gray areas but as long as you do so with respect for others and not intending to hurt some one else, then it really doesn’t matter