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Michelle's Musings

Truth in Memoir

Since last month's post, I dug a little deeper into the differences between memoir and autofiction. My main concern was maintaining the truthfulness of memoir in spite of the absence of perfect recall. I was surprised to learn in my writing revision class that changing my characters' names introduces an element of fiction. Yet some reputable memoirists recommend doing so when needed for privacy concerns and protection from liability.


Depending on whom you talk to, you'll get diametrically opposed opinions on just how much liberty, if any, one can take in writing memoir. The concept of fictionalizing an autobiography (autofiction) is an intriguing one, especially in cases where memory recall is difficult. A key benefit with autofiction is the author can describe intimate or deeply personal experiences which might otherwise make them feel shamed by intolerant members of society. Since the emotional impact of a story may be more significant than its factual basis, autofiction appears to serve a purpose here. However, some writing experts believe autofiction should not be a separate genre.


I recently read We are Bridges: A Memoir wherein author, Cassandra Lane, imagined stories about her ancestors that represented her approximation of the environment in which they most likely existed. She was careful to weave into her narrative the fact that her recall was lacking or that certain specifics were unknown to her. Much of what she portrays as an unreliable narrator is speculation. Yet, her book title includes the word "memoir."


When it comes to writing about one's lived experiences, privacy is a priority for those still alive. I plan to stay with my first inclination to change names where necessary, prefaced with a disclaimer somewhere in the introductory pages. I'm not writing a revenge story, therefore, I'm not concerned about others being offended to the extent they'd want to sue me. However, I acknowledge that I have made and will make mistakes with my recall, and I plan to indicate when it might differ from that of others so the reader can trust that I'm delivering an honest product.


As a lifelong student, my perspective is not a rigid, hard-lined synopsis of everything I've digested. In fact, my most important take is that rules are meant to bend. To me, it's a matter of degrees. I'm writing my memoir as an example of journey, growth, and renewal that others may find useful for their lives now and in the future. My perceptions are my truth. If I stay true to myself, my story, and my readers' expectations for a resonating message, then I will be successful.

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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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