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Michelle's Musings

When is Truth not Truth?

In a recent post, I mentioned I was finalizing an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress for submission to my revision writers class. While our focus at the time was creative nonfiction, our instructor commented on the current trend toward fictionalizing memoir and the efforts underway to reverse the trend. He asserted that whenever a fictional component is introduced, such as in the reconstruction of dialogue that took place years or even decades earlier, the memoir work should be deemed fiction. This statement threw me for a loop.


According to Roy Peter Clark's essay "How Truthful are Memoirs?" writers should not use "invented dialogue…. Any words in quotation marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations—especially from the distant past—should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation such as indented dashes."


The use of indented dashes –like this- for reported speech (vs. direct speech) aims to "relieve the burden of exactness," according to my instructor who also advised that the use of fictitious names for fear of retribution is unwarranted if the writer wishes to stay true to the genre of nonfiction. He suggested using an initial or a description of the person's natural status (e.g. "the short woman") or their role (e.g. "the physician") instead in those cases where a character's real name can or should not be used. My inclination had been to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the work to notify the reader of my use of made-up names and to convey transparency as to my standards and narrative methods. However, inaccurate dialogue, the class was told, holds greater potential for threats of lawsuits against the author than does the use of a real name.


Just when I was at the height of confusion, our class instructor introduced the concept of autofiction, short for autobiographical fiction. Defined as a work of truth that combines elements of autobiography with fiction in which the author is the main character, the writer recreates the world according to their experiences without altering or falsifying the facts. Thus, the story often reads as a first-person account of the author's life.


Curious to get additional feedback on the use of recalled information, I polled members of a writing association to which I belong to determine if others were under the same impression as I about writing memoir, specifically with regard to the use of quotation marks for dialogue when the author's recall is not exact but represents a best approximation and conveys the factual essence of what the quoted individual previously said. Most respondents agreed: As long as the author is writing their truth as they remember it, the work could be deemed memoir.


Hardly anyone has a photographic memory. Dialogue, backstory, and narration from events that happened decades earlier are often a bit fuzzy in their recollection. I still find the distinctions between memoir and autofiction somewhat ambiguous. For next month's post, I'll delve deeper into this subject. Stay tuned!

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