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Is This a True Story?
Contributor
Written by
Meg Bortin
12 days ago
Contributor
Written by
Meg Bortin
12 days ago

When you sit down to write, how much is truth and how much fiction? If you’re writing a personal story, should you call it a memoir or a novel?

Or, to put it differently, what constitutes truth in creative writing?

I gave this matter some thought after completing a short piece about Chernobyl during a writing workshop in 1995. I had been to the site of the nuclear accident in 1987, one year after the explosion and fire, and wrote about it then as a news agency reporter for Reuters. It was the usual wire service dispatch--a description of the exclusion zone created by the disaster, the tall pines withered by radiation, clothes still on the line because the people who fled had no time to bring them inside. Factual, dispassionate, newsworthy--and true.

Eight years later, at this workshop, we were asked to write a piece using long sentences. For some reason, the Chernobyl experience came back to mind. This time it was a different story. More true, I felt, because it better conveyed the emotion of the experience--our dread upon entering the radiation zone, the unspeakably sad beauty of the silent Ukrainain spring. To my mind, it was a far stronger piece than the news article. Creative, but not fiction.

What I learned from this experience is that there are different ways to tell a true story. By setting aside journalistic objectivity, I had allowed a more subjective reality to shine through.

The question of truth came back in a different way last year when I was finishing a memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, about a young journalist on the trail of a story with a happy ending. Ahead of publication I was handing the manuscript out to friends for comment--and a number of them testily informed me that I couldn’t call the book a memoir because I’d changed the names of all the people portrayed, including my own (in order, I like to joke, to protect the guilty). Here’s a comment from one of them, a writer himself:

‘Thinking about your magnum opus in the middle of the night, I felt that it really is against the rules for someone writing a memoir to then hide under a pseudonym. The purpose of a memoir is exposure. If it is a book by Meg Bortin about someone else with another name, then it's a novel, not a memoir.’

We argued about the possible merits of changing the genre to ‘autobiographical novel.’ And there were pros and cons, given the content.

It’s the story of one woman’s path through the minefield of changing roles at a very specific point in time--after the pill and before AIDS. The sexual freedom we enjoyed came at the price of casting aside many of the values we grew up with, and many of us struggled to reconcile our lives as independent women with our longing for happily-ever-after.

Because the heroine is a journalist, the story is set against a backdrop of historic events, from the Vietnam War protests in America to the Soviet Union and ... Chernobyl. It’s also packed to the gills with sex (more on that in my next post). Because the story is so personal, I didn’t feel I could write honestly about my misadventures with men if I used their real names. So why not call it a novel?

Well, for one thing, it's a portrait of a world-changing era, and I wanted the events recognized as fact. As a journalist, I wanted the power of a true story. As a woman, I wanted to pass along to younger generations an account--warts and all--of the struggle of my generation to forge new possibilities for ourselves as women. Of the passion, the heartbreak, the obstacles, the joy, the many mistakes we made along the way.

In the end, I decided to stick to Plan A and call my book a memoir. My own name I changed to Mona Venture--a play ‘my adventure’ in French and, in that sense, true. But was I right to make that choice? So many novelists use true stories and tweak them only slightly, giving themselves more literary freedom in the process. So which genre to choose?

As creative writers, we all face this dilemma. When sitting down to write, I concluded, the main thing is to remain true to oneself. And how that truth is expressed depends on the story.

Memoir or novel? Tough choice. How do you see it?

* This article was originally posted in March 2014. *

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Comments
  • Rossandra White

    How timely for me that you posted your excellent essay at this time. This is such a huge subject isn't it for those of us who are writing/have written a memoir. This past week, upon the release of my memoir Loveyoubye, I was interviewed by a reporter from my local newspaper whose first question was why I chose to write my story as memoir instead of fiction because of all the dialogue. I told her memoir was not autobiography; memoir is not recorded truth but it is about emotional memory, it's about what haunts us. But her question had set off an old fear of mine that I wouldn't be believed. I've subsequently realized that the journey writing memoir takes us on is about freeing ourselves from the limitations of the past toward our authentic selves. Linda Joy Myers says it best, “Memoir writing draws on all aspects of who we are, body, mind and soul. We are challenged to dig deep, to remember, and once again inhabit the skin of who we were and what we have learned. Writing memoir is an act of testimony, witnessing, healing. When you write a memoir, you draw upon layers of your consciousness and discover your true nature, your essential self, and are transformed by the process.” 

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Creative nonfiction allows you to write real life but with a creative license. All of my writing reveals bits and pieces of my life, or of those close to me. Alma's sojourn in Texas in The Sandoval Sisters is my mother's story, but set in an historical time frame. I didn't start out w/the intention of finding out more about myself, but the revelations arrived. A beta reader asked me which sister-Oratoria, Pilar or Alma-I most identified with. I realized that each of them represented a stage through life in which I had passed: maiden, mother, crone.

  • Skye Blaine

    I agree, Meg. I wrote my memoir to gain perspective on my weaknesses and strengths during the time in question. The writing unveiled a host of feelings I wasn't even aware of prior to the writing of it. It also gave me insight into my husbands of the time leading to forgiveness and friendship with one, and strong boundaries with the other.

    Very, very helpful.

    Skye

  • Meg Bortin

    Thanks to all for these comments. I'd like to respond to first to Monica, with whom I agree that the purpose of (most) memoir is definitely not exposure. I should have added that my friend who made the comment is a British man in his 80s, hence from a different generation when maybe that was the rule of the game. But these days - and yes, I think this would make an excellent subject for a future post - the purpose of memoir would seem to me to be, a) for the reader, to provide not just a story but a history and b) for the author, to achieve a measure of objectivity (or should I say meaningfulness) with regard to a personal slice of life. I studied memoir writing with the author Kaylie Jones, a brilliant teacher, and will pass along some of her nuggets when I write that future post. Carole, your historical novel sounds fascinating. I, too, considered creative nonfiction as a genre for my book. This is all so tricky! I am grateful for your thoughts.

  • Carole Bumpus

    This is a dilemma; one that I ran into when I was deciding to do a creative non-fiction book.  (Is that an oxymoron?)  But when my main character actually died and I needed to write dialogue I switched to the novel format--not that I had any awareness of what I was doing.  It set me back in time and money to take classes and learn a different genre, but in the long run I think my historical novel, A Cup of Redemption, is going to be worth the time and effort.  Carole Bumpus 

  • Monica Lee

    "The purpose of memoir is exposure." Hmm. Your piece is excellent, and I agree with how your decided to proceed. I'm not sure I agree with your friend. Maybe "celebrity memoir" is about exposure and for some other memoir writers, it might be about exposure, but not all of us. On the other hand, what IS the purpose of memoir? This might make a another great blog post -- you answer it for yourself ("I wanted to pass along to younger generations an account--warts and all--of the struggle of my generation to forge new possibilities for ourselves as women) but it's a good question generally.

  • Skye Blaine

    Wow, Meg, I haven't done that--well I have, with the women involved. But not the men. Not my previous husbands. I've been sitting with that--one has become a friend again; I may need to show the chapters to him. A couple of incidents occurred while we together that I experienced as betrayal back then. Now I chalk it up to immaturity.

  • Stacy Clark

    Meg, I like what you say about "remaining true to oneself" and the manner of expression "depends on the story." About those testy friends. I often think there are enough testy people in the world, can't the friends just me supportive. :) Also, totally intrigued by the title. Best to you.

  • Nina Ruth Rosett

    Hi Meg!  I found your post tres interessante.  I am now finishing my memoir highlighting my spiritual and emotional journey throughout adulthood,  I also changed the names of the people I included, but thankfully, I am not changing my own.  I think it is perfectly fine to call it a memoir and agree with the other posts that the main things is the meaning of the conversations and not stating them verbatim.  I don't have the luxury of talking with most of the people, as I have lost touch with most of them, but feel it is only right to protect their privacy!  Thanks very much for a timely conversation!

  • Meg Bortin

    Carol, you raise a tricky point. Of course anyone can find out who Mona Venture is - especially because the book is a memoir written in the first person, and my real name is on the front cover! But you're right that doing this creates distance, which has pros and cons in my view. First the down side: readers may question the veracity of the story if the name of the protagonist/author is changed. But for me, writing as Mona Venture gave me the critical distance I needed to write this story. My morphing from the familiar self known as Meg Bortin into the more exotic Mona Venture (myself as a far younger woman), I was able to view my adventures and misadventures with greater tranquility. Perhaps greater objectivity, too. It was a tough choice, but I'm not unhappy about it. And the reviews have been pretty good so far, thank goodness. As for marketing, I'm the last person to ask as I have not done a very good job of it yet. But I take heart from friends who have launched 11th hour marketing initiatives with great success.

    Skye, you also touch on a key point. How to tell the truth when the conversations date back several decades? I have a notoriously poor memory in daily life, but when writing the memoir the words just came back to me, almost magically (more on this in a future post). Nonetheless, my failsafe method was to show the manuscript pages to each of the people portrayed in turn - to compare my memory with theirs. This allowed me to correct details and make sure my memory wasn't playing tricks on me. It was also quite a lot of fun to reminisce together about some of the crazy things we did, and how it all turned out.

  • Skye Blaine

    Hi Meg,

    I've completed the final draft of a memoir, and I changed all the names except my own. It's the only way I felt I could comfortably tell the truth, as I see it. Particularly one man in the story has turned out to be a fine older adult. He made mistakes during the time I was married to him, but I don't want to pick on him. I made mistakes as well. If someone really wants to figure out who he is, they would be able to. I also will acknowledge the name changes at the start of the book.

    In addition, I had to reconstruct conversations from thirty-five years ago. I know they are true to the feeling of the conversation, but of course the words are not identical.

    --Skye

    --Skye

  • Carol Merchasin

    I understand your desire to protect the privacy of others in a sensitive story so I think changing their names makes sense. And I think that the genre you choose to use, that of memoir, also makes sense for lots of reasons including that is what felt right to you. But I have questions about changing your name as the author. Can not any one interested find out who Mona Venture is? Does not that put you at some distance from your readers? Not just in the reading of the book but in knowing who you are as a person? I am getting ready to publish a book and I am knee deep in the PR/Marketing realities. How do you promote a book if your identity is a secret?

  • Meg Bortin

    Thank you for these comments. Actually, Enid, I'm very sympathetic to your argument, so much so that I put an author's note at the start of the book stating that the names of all the people portrayed (except for historical figures) had been changed, including my own, but that the events recounted were true. And as you say, Paula and Kristin, changing the names not only allows you to protect the privacy of the people described, but also to achieve a greater degree of emotional truth. I didn't feel I could tell stories involving pregnancy and abortion, for example, and name names, without compromising the privacy of the men involved. And yet these stories were crucial in the narrative of the my book - about the journey of one woman through a period when roles and expectations were evolving at incredible speed. So that was my solution. Imperfect, perhaps, but I hope it works.

  • Enid Powell

    Most readers assume a memoir is completely true so I feel it's a violation of their trust to use an assumed name - unless you tell them that's what you're doing.  If you say up front that this is a true story of your experiences, and only the names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals, and the embarrassment of the author, then you can call It whatever you want.  I call the book of my short stories "Semi-autobiographical Fiction" - but the title tells the truth another way:  "To Tell You The Truth...and Other Fictions." 

    I think what we both mean is that this is the emotional truth - and events are pretty much as we remember them -= but even memory is not entirely reliable.  Still, even if you call it a memoir, the reader deserves to know that "only the names have been changed" - if that is the truth.

  • Paula Wagner

    I have to agree with you: "Paths are many, truth is one," (in the words of a wise swami). Sometimes changing the names can free us to achieve a greater level of emotional truthfulness than simply sticking to the facts, especially as we grapple with our experiences in the sexual revolution of the 60's. Thanks also for your keen insights on our struggles as women during that era - it's hard now to describe let alone balance the conflicting emotions of exhilaration, freedom, ambiguity, guilt and regret, coming of age in that vibrant time. Very helpful to know I'm not alone in grappling with similar issues in writing about that period of my life. Thanks, Paula

  • Hi Meg,

    If I may be so bold (!) I diasagree with your friend, and agree with you.  My take on writing memoir is that you tell the true story of what you lived, as you understood it either at the time or with hindsight (or both), and that it is not an exercise in identifying or providing the real names of people who intersected with your story.   I think it is an invasion of privacy to name names, when those people perhaps never wanted to be included in a story.  The changing of names or even the creation of composite characters seems like a courtesy and even, sometimes, a necessity.  My two cents.  Good piece.  Thanks for sharing.  Kristin