Untangling the Messes: How Much Truth to Put in the Memoir?

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“It isn’t enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the person, it must be driven by the engine of what the story means.” ― Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Isolated Experiences Can’t Drive the Memoir

Near-death motorcycle accident at 17, cervical cancer diagnosed at 19, hysterectomy at 23, a drug addict by age 30; does any of that sound familiar? Probably not, and so I’d lose readers before they even picked up the book, although all of those are some of my life events.

The memoir must contain more than the events or even the highlights of that life; there have to be similarities in the readers' lives in order to touch them and keep them reading. Click To Tweet

This is where each writer finds their theme -that distinct, but the unifying idea of the writing because universal themes transcend gender, age, and race. Memoir lets the writer relive, reflect, and rediscover through their memories, thoughts, and feelings.

A great memoir is not just a human experience or the perceptions of the writer, but an experience that goes beyond the life of the writer and captures moments, feelings and perceptions of the reader.

 We’re In This Together

Many people are told:

  • “You ought to write a book”
  • “You’ve got a great story”
  • “People could learn a lot from your life”

But great stories don’t always translate into a great memoir. Why is that?

It’s similar to what happens when I’m working with a new client, struggling to get off drugs and alcohol. I’ve been in recovery for 28 years. While some are impressed with the number of years I’ve been off drugs and alcohol, others simply cannot fathom going without them for that long. End of story. I’ve lost them. Why? Because they cannot relate to the amount of time. It’s my job to go back to how I felt, what I thought, and the struggles I had at the time when I got into recovery that I know are similar to them.

Then that individual knows I understand what they are experiencing and with that awareness they see that we are not significantly different. When we have that moment of clarity, they are more open to hearing what I did to accomplish that time. Now we’re getting somewhere.

That translates in the memoir to finding the theme. The universal similarities, struggles, or the ability to discern an opportunity and capitalize on it. Beyond theme that resonates with others, is the dialogue that either is an exact replication of what was said or a reasonable facsimile.

Voices: Writer’s and Other Participants

What makes dialogue important in memoirs is that it conveys the point of view of the other people involved and doesn't diminish the writer's voice. Click To Tweet

Before I got into recovery, I created the illusion that I was manipulating situations to my advantage, escaping natural consequences for my actions, and fooling others into thinking I was okay. My sister kidnapped me one Christmas; trying desperately to keep me away from drugs. She took me to a friend’s house and in that secluded cabin in the woods – no literary license here, it was a cabin in the woods, she started pointing out all the problems in my life as she saw them. I, of course, refuted each argument.

bozoFinally, out of desperation, she blurted, “You think you’re Machiavelli, but you’re really Bozo the Clown.”

We are not a family that just says, “Boy are you stupid and delusional.” No, we provide comparisons that leave no doubt as to our perception of the issue. To this day, she likes that statement so much, that she’s used it to describe others in a working relationship. It’s such a part of our shared history that I can fill in the blanks for her when she mentions a Machiavelli employee. There’s no doubt as to the authenticity of that dialogue.

But what if you don’t remember exactly what someone said? After all, you aren’t a recording device. You can still add dialogue that imparts the truth of the statements without it being exact. Just as our memories of the events are a reflection, when we add dialogue, it may be a slightly altered version.

“A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.” ― Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam

However, even when we are embellishing or adding plausible dialogue to the event, we have to have boundaries as to truth and fiction. If our additions move the memoir along and help with the story, it’s okay to write a reasonable reflection of the conversation.

That Was Then; This is Now: Memoir and the Memory

We store memories in our brain, which makes it sound like a puzzle box where we reassemble the pieces and get a clear picture. Unfortunately, memory isn't that simple or that consolidated. Click To Tweet

We have to retrieve the memories from different parts of our brain and then reassemble them into a cohesive memory. It’s the reassembling of the memories that act as creative re-imagination.

So that day that “started like any other” then takes on significance. Or the “chance encounter” or the choices we make that have a profound influence on the remainder of our lives.

Realistically, if it was just another day, other than the commonality of it, would there be any reason to write about it? However, with creative imagination, we can embellish the sky, the air, or the sounds to add a heightened sense of importance.

We draw our readers through their senses and help them find the meaning and theme in our lives, which in turn, helps them find the significance in their lives. That’s what makes a powerful memoir.

And if we embellished a little? Well, if it was to help, we already know that’s okay.


More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:

Memoir: White Rain, Penny Candy, and Crooked Politicians

Memory Lane: Memoir and Reverse Writing

The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Arcing, Enhancing and Advancing the Memoir

Memoir: Your Story, My Story, Our Stories

Writing a Memoir of Restoration, Renewal, and Rediscovery


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  1. Hi Marilyn, I’m using this post to frame my next post mid January. We shall see what becomes of it. I’m going a little deeper and feel somewhat hesitant. It’s feels scary, but liberating. I’ll want yours and Scott’s input on this one. John.

    • Hi, John. Dive in. One of the benefits of writing here, is that Scott and I won’t let you drown. We’ve all felt vulnerable sharing aspects of ourselves or our lives in our writing, but without them, we might just be writing fiction rather than memoir.

    • John, feel free to email or call me anytime you need advice. You may recall my short memoir piece in the last writing challenge titled, “Dating Death.” I felt very exposed in this piece because it involved my use of heavy drugs as a young man. As a professional writer, an editor, and so forth, I felt some may judge me harshly – and they still may – but nevertheless, I told my story, and it seems to have been well received. I still hold some things back for my memoir, but I write short pieces to try them out on the audience. If they don’t get many comments, likes, or shares – no big deal, that teaches me a lesson in what readers want or like.

      • Thank you Scott. Actually, your story “Dating Death” is what prompted me to write my next submission. I will finish it up in about a week and see what you and Marilyn think. It’s a doozy. 🙂

    • Thanks for joining in on the conversation. Marilyn has a very firm grasp of this genre, and our readers have really enjoyed this post. We are always humbled and happy when we see that one of our posts helped a fellow writer, or was inspirational. Again, thanks for your comment. Have a great evening.

    • Hi, dgkaye, thank you for the kind words. Memoir writing can feel vulnerable and yet, it is some of the most cathartic writing anyone can do. It is also, in my opinion, the genre where we can most authentically touch another person through our thoughts and feelings. Again, thank you for commenting – we writers need encouragement.

      • No need to thank. And your words are exactly right. Memoir writing is certainly in a league of its own. I began mine with journaling for years, and it took me decades until I had the courage to publish. Cathartic it was, but as you know so many people can relate to a memoir with incidents in their own lives. So, if we can help someone else by sharing our own experience, then we’re doing our job.
        And I couldn’t agree with you more – writers certainly need encouragement, as we are so good at becoming our own worst critics. 🙂

    • Good afternoon, Linda; what a fun comment. I’m smiling and may just have to add that word to my vocabulary. Thanks.

      • Lol, thank you. I just made that word up on the spot after reading your terrific article.

        Funny thing — the auto incorrect on my Kindle Fire tablet, which so often wants to correct words that I know are spelled correctly, likes “fantabulous” just fine!

        • Hi Linda; your incorrect is related to mine. Where can I download another? Who programs these things? Who decided that I wanted a picture for common words? Who? Who? Oh, heck, I sound like an owl; course auto correct thinks it should be awl. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

    • Good afternoon, Mamalisa; I appreciate your comment. Dialogue adds nuances and depth to a memoir and is often an overlooked feature when the writer is afraid of losing their voice. Yet, these counterpoints and other voices add a richness in my opinion. Again, thank you for taking the time to comment.

    • Good afternoon, Lynette; thank you for re-blogging this piece and the kind words about the writing. I appreciate both.

  2. “Memoir lets the writer relive, reflect and rediscover through their memories, thoughts and feelings the human experience. Not just a human experience, or the perceptions of the writer, but an experience that goes beyond the life of the writer and captures moments, feelings and perceptions of the reader.” This is memoir in a nutshell.

  3. Good morning, Haley; thank you for the comment. Shameless plug – I’ve got several other posts specific to memoir that might also help your clients. It’s vulnerable writing and I think that people can get overwhelmed with both what to include as well as the feelings that are rekindled when writing. I’d welcome feedback on those articles as well.

  4. FANTASTIC article. I am a writing coach for women who are telling their stories. This puts to words a lot of what I teach, and gave me new insight into a couple of things, so thank you very much!

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