Truth in Memoir

A few thoughts after sending North of Hope into the world:

Memoir is a subcategory of non-fiction, even if creative non-fiction or literary non-fiction. Memoir tells a true story.

Except: if you and I have dinner one week, and recall that dinner the following week, it’s likely we both will recall something different, about the light, the music playing or not, the family at the table across from us, the food. Memory is molded by who we are, the genes we carry, the experiences woven together in our lives. Even if we each wrote down what we remembered about our dinner the moment we arrived home, and referred to those notes a week or a month later, we’d likely craft different scenes.

In North of Hope, I tell a true story. In my first writing I told it chronologically, and all the characters could have been found with a Google search. Even in those first drafts I had to choose what details to include, which conversations. The act of inclusion, and perhaps even more the act of omission, shaped the narrative.

Those first versions did not, to me, tell the whole story I was trying to tell. Grief is not a chronological experience. Life rarely is, outside of certain landmarks of births and deaths, a marriage, a graduation. And so telling a story chronologically as a journalist might do, did not arrive at an experiential truth of grief, of my trip on an Arctic river, or of my wrestling with my relationships with my dad and stepmom and trying to find my own reality after they were gone.

And so I rewrote the narrative. I included flashbacks. I built scenes and conversations as accurately as I could using the hard material of notes and the ever-shifting mist of memory. I considered the essence of what each scene would convey. Creative nonfiction, of which memoir is a part, is generally understood to use fictional or literary techniques to arrive at a true story, a story expressing the essence of an experience. I worked on those parts of craft that could make my real story true.

In the rewriting, it did not seem important to me to include the real names of the few characters in the book who might have an objection to their roles in the story; I changed their names and circumstances to something that matched their personalities, but wouldn’t be searchable. I believe a story’s living characters are entitled to their own versions of our shared experience. I included one minor composite character to hold a relational experience of grief I did not want to attribute to living persons. It is possible these small changes might have affected the truth of the story. If my story was about exploring the complications of grief among survivors, it might not have worked. ButNorth of Hope is my journey down a river and through grief; these specifics were not important.

One writer friend who has thus far written straight non-fiction does not agree with this approach. Others embrace these tactics much more fully. Edward Abbey is known to have employed a technique of time compression, writingDesert Solitaire as a memoir of one year as a desert park ranger, when the period covered was actually two years. When I read Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s compression of time is, to me, inconsequential to his story. Pam Houston laughs at the idea of specific details needing to be journalistically accurate. In her outstanding essay “Corn Maze” (included in the also outstanding compilation Metawritings edited by Jill Talbot), Houston readily admits to manufacturing a scene and characters in a story about rafting a river. She claims 82 percent of what she writes is real. I am not so bold. But I agree with her supposition that truth is something hard to define, and that it is not constrained by actual events.

I finished shaping the narrative of North of Hope before studying some of these techniques in other memoirs. I might have taken a few more liberties with the manuscript to arrive at the final truth if I wrote it again. What is true: I lost my father and stepmother to a grizzly bear along an Arctic river, and I went back to take their trip. I sang the Mozart Requiem the year between the trips. I learned from wilderness and music how to live again.

The definition of truth in memoir and creative nonfiction is, for most of us, a gray area. I believe, at this point in my writing, that the general facts should be true, experiences relayed should have happened and that the essence of a story should be true. I do not have a problem with compression of time or character composites. Patricia Hampl says memoir is looking for the “truth of a self in the world.” I like that.

My mother taught me to read when I was three years old, but she will not read my book, or any of my writing. I do not mention her name in North of Hope, though she has had two different last names, neither of which we shared, since I was twelve years old, so you’d really have to research to figure out who she is. She is mostly absent from the narrative, because she was mostly absent from the experience. She will not read North of Hope nor likely forgive it because I have told my story, which is different from the story she tells herself about my growing up years, and because she does not play a prominent role in the story I’ve told. In her mind, I assume (though she will not say), I have committed sins of both inclusion and omission. The sin of memoir is that it reshapes other people’s stories, too.

Patricia Hampl has said she loses relationships every time she writes a book. Sometimes it is because a person sees himself in a character even when that was not her intention at all. Sometimes it is because someone wanted to be included but was not. It is the nature of truth telling that it cannot be everyone’s truth, but must still achieve universality.

So why tell it, if there are all these complications, if truth is so hard to define? Since North of Hope came out, I’ve been grateful for what I’ve heard from people: that it is so brutally honest, so raw. Why in the world would a person write from one’s soul and share it with strangers? I like to think it is because I am responding to a human need to connect at the most human level in an era of superficial connections. Still, North of Hope is not me. When people find out the few facts around my father and stepmother’s deaths, they still respond with horror. I want to share that horror can resolve itself in beauty. That we do not have a choice about living in story, but that we do have a choice about the story in which we live and love. That story, even true story, even tragic story, has strands of beauty which have the power to heal.

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  • I just set up a Goodreads chat tomorrow if anyone would like to continue the discussion, I'd love to have your questions and input! It's scheduled 10 AM-3 PM PST but you can add questions now, too.

  • Avril Somerville

    Thanks for that very helpful, proven guidance, Shannon. Looking forward to picking up a copy of your book. 

  • SOmer, I do think you have to write it all out- and then decide if you want to keep everything in later or not. When I started writing North of Hope, I had not planned to include the scene of verbal abuse from my half brother. Someone wisely told me to write the entire story, and decide later whether or not it fit. I decided later it was indeed part of the story; it turned out to be the circumstance against which the narrator's realizations were thrown toward the end, in addition to showing a more complex part of grief within family dynamics. I am grateful for that original advice, though think it's possible I might have cut it; later editing gives you the opportunity to deterine what fits best with the story itself. 

    All the very best to you on your work!

  • Avril Somerville

    I struggle with the often blurry lines between memoir and non-fiction as a larger category. In sharing my story, I'm conflicted with the whole notion of exclusion versus inclusion. Hubby says "just tell the story; share your truth ... worry about the clean-up later". I'm tending to think he's right on this one. Lately when I deliberate the whole affair, Alicia Keys "Brand New Me" comes to mind. These specific resonate the most:

    "If I talk a little louder
    If I speak up when you're wrong
    If I walk a little taller
    I've been under you too long
    If you noticed that I'm different
    Don't take it personally
    Don't be mad, it's just the brand new kind of me
    That ain't bad, I found a brand new kind of free"

    Writing the first draft of my novel provided that kind of liberation for me. It was a process of deeply-seated soul wrenching and transformation, and I'm happy to have had the outpouring.  There is no amount of retribution that can take that away.

    Thank you for your confirmation. I wish you blessings along your journey as you continue to heal, as you write your stories. Congratulations on North of Hope! I get the feeling that it will bless many others. :)

  • Sally Pfoutz

    Such beautiful writing and thank you for giving the term "creative nonfiction" a reasonable explanation.  In writing the story of an Amish man who faked his death in order to leave his family and society, I had to re-create and yes, imagine, so many details I had to call the manuscript a novel based on a true story.  A high-powered literary agent said it could not be a novel based on a true story because that would put the Amish man's story in doubt.  Yet when I re-wrote it as completely factually as I could, the agent ultimately turned it down with the comment that he had hoped the material and the writing could have been "pumped up" a little more.  It was an excellent lesson and reaffirmation of the adage that one should not write "to" an audience.  I am an avid reader of memoirs and look forward to North of Hope.    

  • Donetta Sifford

    It has always amazed me how two people can have such a different memory of a shared occasion.  Then our memory of things change with years, perhaps more learned information, and our truth cannot be anyone's but ours.  I would love to read your memoir.  A good memoir and poetry books are huge inspiration to me.  I have also always heard the saying "there are 3 truths in every situation; your truth, my truth, and the truth".  Which makes more sense to me then most quotes or  sayings I have jotted down over the years.  Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Yes, Shannon and all: I think it's good also to acknowledge the uniqueness of one's story perhaps in a preface so as to set a clear course for the reader. Thanks!

  • What fabulous responses- thank you all for reading and commenting! I admit to finding it trickier when first engaging and have come to a sense of peace with telling my own truth, but it's an important conversation because as Vicki brings up we have to acknowledge that every story has as many tellings as it does people involved (perhaps even more). In some ways I think that frees us as writers of memoir to be even more honest and true to our our own stories and that's where we have the chance to make the deep connections.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Perfect timing for the point at which I find myself in my drafting and sorting out what to do next.  This has been very helpful.  Have a copy of North of Hope I received from NetGalley for review on my blog, Found Between the Covers.  Hoping to get to it soon.  

  • Vicki Jeffels

    Great exploration of something that has been bothering me. I'm currently writing my memoir - From Pavlova to Pork Pies and have the complicated situation of all three children alive and interested in how I've retold the story. It is helpful to consider that I can only tell my story, and I will need to let them find their own words, for their own stories. 

  • This question often arises in workshops I conduct as well as conference discussions.  I like Judith Barrington's notion in Writing the Memoir, that the memoir writer writes her emotional truth. It is hers, as distinguishable as her voice. This truth emerges within the exploration of writing the memoir.

    Thanks for the question!

  • Ellen Cassedy

     Thanks for a thought-provoking post.  I felt a strong compass guiding me as I wrote "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust," in which I blend personal narration, family history, and the story of how a country scarred by conflict is engaging with its Jewish past.  I tried to stay true to my inner sense of which details mattered -- most did, but on occasion two very minor characters needed to be conflated, multiple encounters with a place needed to be pared down, etc.  Every piece of writing reflects the author’s views and prejudices, whether the author acknowledges them or not.   What matters most to me is the serious attention we pay to getting it right.   

  • Julie Luek

    Thank you for writing this. I greedily read anything I can about writing a memoir. Truth, if viewed through one's own lens and interpretation, is never going to equal fact. That's a journalist's job. Being willing to expose without destroying-- ourselves or others-- and hope in that truth, others benefit and see their own bit of story, that's the job of a memoirist.