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View Full Version : Embellishing Memoirs: Do or Don't?



Sohia Rose
01-10-2007, 12:51 AM
Coming from a journalism background, Iím puzzled that some memoirists can be so cavalier about embellishing details and inventing emotions in characters.

I just feel like non-fiction is NON-FICTION. Iím starting to second guess whether or not all of the memoirs Iíve read are embellished or just flat out lies. Iím not talking about name changes. Iím talking about creating incidences or entire characters for that matter.

Iím currently working on a memoir and a writer friend of mine said to me, ďYou should make this character do this.Ē I said, ďBut thatís not what happened. She didnít do that.Ē :rolleyes:

Is this normal in the industry? Iíd love to hear your opinions about this.

Pamster
01-10-2007, 04:53 AM
I'd love to hear the other's POV on this topic as well, great topic Sohia Rose. I have written my memoir and it's all as things happened, no embellishments or anything of the sort. I believe that as it's marketed as non-fiction, like you, it should BE non-fiction as in real and true to life. So what if you leave some stuff out? But to add stuff or totally change situations to suit your tastes I think will come back to bite the writer in the bakcside personally.

Leah J. Utas
01-10-2007, 06:20 AM
Memoirs ought to be real. If you're going to mess around with the truth, then you ought to call it a novel.

Little Red Barn
01-10-2007, 06:26 AM
My opinion- Memoirs are truth and should be written as such. Otherwise call it fiction.
A lot of memoirs are written well because they are written in detail and pull in the reader....my 2cents

C.bronco
01-10-2007, 06:29 AM
I agree. Be like Dale Peck and call it a novel based on true events if there's any embellishment or guessing.

Ol' Fashioned Girl
01-10-2007, 06:59 AM
Embellishment didn't work well for James Frey. I'd agree with the others: if you're going to 'embellish', call it fiction.

AmyBA
01-10-2007, 07:24 AM
If you're making it up, in my opinion, it's not really a memoir. I think a memoirist has an obligation to stick to events as they happened-- that's what readers expect; that's what they deserve.

johnrobison
01-10-2007, 07:42 AM
I would ask what you mean by embellishing?

If you are saying, ďShould I make up a story about how I met Jeff in prison, and he told me about killing this coke dealer Bob . . . ď I would say no, unless you really did spend time in prison with Jeff and he did tell you about killing Bob.

I would not encourage you to write about robbing a liquor store unless you actually did rob liquor stores. But if you did rob liquor stores, and then found God and salvation, how would you tell the story?

If you really robbed a store in Detroit and never got caught, Iíd think you might be wise to change the names and the faces and maybe tell about robbing a convenience store in Pontiac or Indianapolis instead. The point is the same . . . sinning led you to salvation, and the facts of the store really do not matter.

But what about a more ordinary circumstance? You remember how you felt when you got into trouble in third grade. You were always getting into trouble. You remember how the teacher would yell at you . . .

Do you write, ďI was always in trouble as a third graderĒ and leave it at that?

Or do you make up dialogue, such that the emotions you want to get across are conveyed?

None of us remember word for word what was said, but we all read memoirs where such long ago conversation is reconstructed. In my opinion, that is OK and adds to interest and readability.

I will offer another example.

Letís say you were a drunk. Many times, you went out, got drunk and ended up in some strangerís bed, or in an alley, or even once in the hospital. Letís say that happened more often than we can count, a hundred times or more.

Would you be right to make up a ďtypical sceneĒ that shows how you acted when drunk?

You donít remember the actual words

You donít remember the guy/girlís name

You donít even remember which bar it all happened in.

So do you say ďI donít remember where I was, but I met this guy Ė I donít remember his name Ė and we went to this disco Ė I forget which day though, maybe Saturday . . . ď

Or do you make a story that reads smoothly and makes sense to get your point across?

ďOnce again, I was drinking at Maxís Tavern, and I hooked up with a girl, Julie, that Iíd seen there last Wednesday . . ď

A memoir is supposed to tell us your story, and thereby hopefully entertain, inspire, or teach us. Often we accomplish that goal by creating dialogue and combining events and even people to make our point. But we should all draw the line somewhere, and the place we draw it must depend upon our story and the relevance of the item in question.

Investigative reporting is just the facts, please. Memoir writers are not usually investigative journalists.

MajorDrums
01-10-2007, 06:45 PM
Embellishing memoirs can really bite you in the ass if the audience finds out that details were embellished. It can become a slippery slope, IMO; you might as well write a novel based on true events, like others have suggested.

Not that many people have perfect memories on every event that happened to them, this I understand. But I think the safest way to write about an event you believe is important to the memoir, where you don't remember all of the details is to say, "As I think back to that event..." and then insert any personal dialog or lessons learned as a way to let the reader know you are trying to sort out your memories and the significance behind them.

TH Meeks
01-10-2007, 11:12 PM
Being honest and truthful is the only way to go. Embellishing leads to James Frey syndrome, aka "truthiness." Sometimes memoir writers have to change names or obscure identities, and that should be noted in an author's note. Be honest with the reader and they will be understanding. Lead them to believe that fiction is non-fiction, and you've trashed your credibility. If an author invents or changes key details, he/she should write "Based on a true story" and call it fiction. Elie Wiesel originally classified his memoir Night as fiction, but that didn't make it any less powerful.

T.

jennifer75
01-13-2007, 01:40 AM
What is the difference? Hoping not to start any heated debates, just a clear "AW" definition of both.

Sohia Rose
01-13-2007, 01:56 AM
What is the difference? Hoping not to start any heated debates, just a clear "AW" definition of both.


Here's somethig I grabbed from the dictionary:

embellish |em beli sh | verb [ trans. ] make (something) more attractive by the addition of decorative details or features : blue silk embellished with golden embroidery. ē make (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, esp. ones that are not true : she had real difficulty telling the truth because she liked to embellish things.

jennifer75
01-13-2007, 02:23 AM
I was looking for a clearer picture on the difference between Memoirs and Autobiographies.

Pamster
01-13-2007, 03:15 AM
From what I understand a memoir is about a given chunk of time and an autobiography is something that starts from your childhood onward to the end of your life story to where ever you are at the writing of the auto-bio. I don't think that is a AW definition but it might help explain the difference assuming I am right that is...LOL! ;)

I am sure someone else will come in and offer a better definition of the two. :)

johnrobison
01-13-2007, 07:30 AM
I was looking for a clearer picture on the difference between Memoirs and Autobiographies.

An autobiography is something you write for people who will be interested in your life. If you become an Acedemy Award winning actor, or President of GE, or a four star general, people will want to read your life story.

A memoir is a story about your experience. You write it for people who will identify with your drug addiction, or your time as a pro footballplayer, or your efforts hiking across the Rockies.

Generally, a memoir is shorter and more focused on a particular time period or a particular range of events in one's life.

jennifer75
01-15-2007, 10:50 PM
A memoir is a story about your experience. You write it for people who will identify with your drug addiction, or your time as a pro footballplayer, or your efforts hiking across the Rockies.

Generally, a memoir is shorter and more focused on a particular time period or a particular range of events in one's life.

Great, thank you!

expatbrat
01-17-2007, 10:09 AM
Well said John!

I'd like to add my two bahts worth: don't make stuff up if you want to call it non-fiction.

You can certainly leave stuff out, and write conversations as they would have probably have been having knowing both characters well, but making event, actions and behavious up to suit the story makes your story fiction.

Elodie-Caroline
01-17-2007, 10:24 AM
Maybe the people embellishing their memoirs have been watching too many Hollywood movies? How many of them state that they're based on a true story.
I wouldn't embellish my own memoirs, I can't stand lies of any kind; however, I do use bits of my own life interweaved in my fictional characters.

Ellie

Pamster
01-18-2007, 10:09 PM
Maybe the people embellishing their memoirs have been watching too many Hollywood movies? How many of them state that they're based on a true story.
I wouldn't embellish my own memoirs, I can't stand lies of any kind; however, I do use bits of my own life interweaved in my fictional characters.

Ellie

I agree with you on both things. I didn't embellish my memoir because the real story is pretty interesting I think. And I too use bits of real life to weave in there with fictional characters. :)

laurenem6
01-19-2007, 09:11 PM
I tried to ask this in a thread I started and didn't get much response. Obviously, if you want your story to be interesting, you need dialogue. How am I supposed to remember exactly what someone said years ago? So to some degree, any time you add something like that to your memoir, you are fictionalizing it. So how can you completely say that memoirs have to be strictly nonfiction?

Pamster
01-19-2007, 11:02 PM
I think as long as the true intent of the events are carried over into the story it's as good as can be expected you know? It's not fictionalizing when you're looking back, it's reflecting/reflection and that is a little different then just making something up in its entirety. At least that's how I see it. I tried to be as true to my memories as I could and that's all anyone can expect. :)

Meerkat
01-19-2007, 11:18 PM
What a string of great responses! Fortunately, the standard is completely objective--you know in your heart of hearts whether something said a certain way is the truth or not, without quibbling. Paraphrasing dialogue the best you can remember it, is f truthful or example, as laurenem6 was mentioning above. Reverse engineering motives or other rationalizations that were not present at the time being written about, are not truthful. Even setting aside the right or wrong debate, this would make for weaker writing--the dumbing down of actual human complexity.

One helpful trick though, might be this: You could point out the irony of a situation, for example that if only such and such detail or statement had existed, the whole situation would seem like xyz. That way, you can let the reader into the way you are thinking of something, or the way you wish it had been, exactly.

laurenem6
01-19-2007, 11:24 PM
Reverse engineering motives or other rationalizations that were not present at the time being written about, are not truthful. Even setting aside the right or wrong debate, this would make for weaker writing--the dumbing down of actual human complexity.

What exactly do you mean by this? Can you expand? I admit I haven't read any memoirs before and I'm new to this whole concept.

Meerkat
01-19-2007, 11:44 PM
Sure....suppose Winston Churchill wrote "...then I surrendered to the Boers, in order to infiltrate their army...yeah, that's it--infiltrate" when in fact we know that he surrendered because he was terrified at the prospect of being killed if he didn't raise his hands fast enough. The person writing the memoir knows what the truth was, at every moment. Paraphrasing dialogue is probably fine, if it's close enough to intent...Ceaser probably said "I came, I saw, ...Dude!" We know what he meant.

(not entirely serious with my examples--please do not chastise me)

Elodie-Caroline
01-20-2007, 02:16 PM
When I done (a lot of) my life story online 5 years ago, I wrote all the bits that happened, but also wrote how I think about each bit now. I told it in the same way that I would tell it if I were talking to someone about my life.

Anthony Ravenscroft
01-27-2007, 10:17 PM
Set the embellishment apart from the narrative flow.

The POVchar's nattering along, & s/he spaces out, imagining all sorts of stuff that happens, maybe mundane or maybe hallucinatory (e.g. William Burroughs). Then the narrative snaps back to realtime, & we're once again watching the attested factual part, without having to intrude & treat the reader as stupid by saying "that was all imaginary."

If you need to "embellish" more than that, either write fiction-with-elements or a collection of essays. Else I'd suspect you're planning in order to avoid actually writing, which is fine so long as you admit you're stalling.

calamity
02-16-2007, 10:41 PM
As long as the major events propeling the story are true, I don't mind some embellishment of details if it strengthens the story. I want settings and scenes to be alive. Memoir is more than a series of events. It should be as good as a novel, and have a point. Who really believes that Hunter S ate that much acid? It's obviously an embellishment. But it makes an artisitc point, statement. Vivian Gornick fabricated the climax of her memoir, the conversation with her mother. But that conversation, the imaginative structure of it, is what transcends the memoir from the sensationalism of "reality" to the beauty of art. I don't care if the conversation happened or not because I know Gornick discovered this insight through the writing of her book, and that's the sort of truth I'm after in memoir. Real event after real event, right down to the detail, is worthless if there's no reflection or insight. We get insight through our imagination, which is where the subconscious creates its symbols, and sometimes those symbols pop up in the embellishments. Creative writing at times is a lot like dreaming. No, my dreams are not "true" as in facts, but who will argue with me that there is no truth to them? The facial gestures and clothing I imagine a character wearing on a certain occasion also say something about how I interpret those events now.

I've read memoirs that stop right in the middle of the narrative and say something like "Well I don't remember if her lipgloss was really cherry flavored or watermelon." All I can think is: "Who cares?" I'm not reading the memoir to judge the strength of the narrator's memory, I'm reading it because I want to be told a story, because I want to know how the narrator interprets those events now, what they mean in the greater scope of humanity and life.

I worry that all of this nit-picking about "truth," which is such a flimsy word anyway because our memoires evolve and change as things happen to us over time and are given different contexts, will lead to a lot of boring, wooden memoir writing that lacks the imagination and insight that's needed to transcend life to art.

brutus
02-20-2007, 04:40 PM
m

Susan B
02-21-2007, 08:56 AM
An interesting and prococative discussion.

Some wise person (can't recall who) wrote about the difference between truth and accuracy. In memoir it is essential that we don't deviate from the deep emotional truth. Literal accuracy, on the other hand, is not essential, and in fact it can sometimes interfere with communicating the emotional truth.

Dialogue is the best example. If we all walked around with tape recorders--from birth--we could quote everyone literally. Thank heaven we can't! The art of memoir is to select what we present, to arrange. To edit. The actual words, as in a transcript, with all the hems and haws and hesitations, could only detract.

Memoir isn't journalism, and journalism isn't literal transcribing or reportage. At least I don't think so.

All that being said, I have to admit that I struggle when people tell me to create "scene" in my memoir when I truly don't recall the details of that particular moment.

When I say I played a tune, but I don't recall which one? Yes, I know that the book is richer if I pick one among many I played at that time and describe it, how the instrument felt in my hands, quote the lyrics, capture how that song always makes me feel. Is it cheating to do that? It's not deceptive, and no one is hurt. But still, I wonder.

Susan

calamity
02-21-2007, 06:11 PM
Susan, my opinion would be: No, it's not cheating.

There's quite a bit of music in my memoir too, top 40 stuff, in fact if it ever gets published, it'll have its own soundtrack! I don't remember the exact songs on occasions but I know which songs from that time period were played in the context of my subject matter -- if that makes sense. What I do is try to chose songs that truthfully reflect what would have been playing at the time but also I consider the lyrics and tone of the song and how it might fit within the scene to bring out other emotional complexities. I've found this process to be rewarding and inspiring because the songs can often add another layer of meaning to the scene if chosen carefully. So I say go for it.

Citizen Rob
02-26-2007, 10:43 PM
I think the point about emotional truth is very important. Things like simplifying situations when the complxities are irrelevent to the story feel like a necessity to me. For example, I changed jobs during a crucial point in my memoir, but the job change was from one division of my workplace to another similar one, and when it came time to set a scene at that workplace, I found that trying to explain the change of job was confusing and contributed nothing to the narrative. I eventually set it at the old office since it was little more than a location.

I imagine that composite characters would work the same way, as well as changing identifying characteristics of people in order to protect their privacy. If those changes don't affect the essential truth of your narrative, and if the alternative is trying to somehow make your book work without including important events or persons at all, I think you do what you have to do.

I do think you have a duty to make it clear to the reader at the beginning that some identifiers and logistical details have been changed, timelines have beeen compressed, etc. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't imagine very many people read a memoir and assume that it is functioning with the pinpoint accuracy of a court reporter. I don't think making that clear from the get-go diminishes the reading experience.

Susan B
02-26-2007, 11:02 PM
Thanks, Calamity. Yes, I fantasize about a soundtrack to my book, too. But that gets tricky--and I actually decided to cut the song lyrics I'd been quoting, because of the "permissions" issue.

Susan

Susan B
02-26-2007, 11:05 PM
I think the point about emotional truth is very important. Things like simplifying situations when the complxities are irrelevent to the story feel like a necessity to me. For example, I changed jobs during a crucial point in my memoir, but the job change was from one division of my workplace to another similar one, and when it came time to set a scene at that workplace, I found that trying to explain the change of job was confusing and contributed nothing to the narrative. I eventually set it at the old office since it was little more than a location.

I imagine that composite characters would work the same way, as well as changing identifying characteristics of people in order to protect their privacy. If those changes don't affect the essential truth of your narrative, and if the alternative is trying to somehow make your book work without including important events or persons at all, I think you do what you have to do.

I do think you have a duty to make it clear to the reader at the beginning that some identifiers and logistical details have been changed, timelines have beeen compressed, etc. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't imagine very many people read a memoir and assume that it is functioning with the pinpoint accuracy of a court reporter. I don't think making that clear from the get-go diminishes the reading experience.

Thanks, Rob--a very thoughtful discussion.

And congratulations on your upcoming book!! I looked at your website and blog, and realized I had read something of the story of you and your daughter before. Lovely and inspiring! Good luck--I'll look forward to reading it.

Best,

Susan

Citizen Rob
02-26-2007, 11:39 PM
Thanks, Rob--a very thoughtful discussion.

And congratulations on your upcoming book!! I looked at your website and blog, and realized I had read something of the story of you and your daughter before. Lovely and inspiring! Good luck--I'll look forward to reading it.

Best,

Susan


Thank you, Susan. I'm really enjoying this forum, I can see that I'm not going to get much work done today!

calamity
02-27-2007, 01:00 AM
Be careful Rob, this forum is addictive. Last week was my all-time low for word count. Great to have you here.

Susan B
02-27-2007, 01:57 AM
Be careful Rob, this forum is addictive. Last week was my all-time low for word count. Great to have you here.

Now that is the truth! I just changed my little avatar-thing to a typewriter--hoping that will kind of remind me that's what I am supposed to be doing!

Susan

brutus
02-28-2007, 04:21 PM
m

johnrobison
02-28-2007, 08:54 PM
As for James Frey, the brouhaha over his "embellishment" was the best thing that could have happened to his book. Now everyone knows about it including people who would otherwise have no interest in it. I'm not saying we should all do what he did; it would take away from the impact a good memoir naturally attains by it's adherence to the emotional truth. (if not the journalistic truth)
If I had two cents for every time I put in my two cents worth I'd be rich.
Brutus


Having just sold a memoir of my own, I can assure you of this: The sentiment you express above would not entice any of the publishers I interviewed to take on your work.

Telling 'fisherman's tall tales' is one thing. Making up a prison sentence is another. You were either in state prison, or you weren't. There's no middle ground.

In contrast, all of us caught fish that day. I say mine were bigger, you say yours. I think I caught the limit, eight. You say I only had five. Twenty years have passed, and who really knows? Who cares? The story was about the time we had together and where our lives went from there.

Consider the context when you address questions like this in your own writing.

Jamesaritchie
03-01-2007, 04:56 AM
Either you're a liar or you aren't, and trying to excuse lying by calling it a way of getting to the truth is just silly.

If you want to lie, write a novel. If you intend to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then write a memoir.

But don't pretend one is the other.

And if you have to lie, you're life isn't worth reading about, anyway.

Citizen Rob
03-01-2007, 05:07 AM
Not sure we can all agree on what constitutes a lie, though, or some kind of absolute Truth-with-a-big-T, for that matter. I suspect absolutes work better in mathematics than they do in writing.

brutus
03-02-2007, 05:30 PM
m

calamity
03-02-2007, 07:40 PM
Well I think I've already made my position very clear on this matter but James is entitled to his opinion too. And he's not alone. There are memoirists who take no or few liberties with their stories. As writers of a genre where the opinions can vary so widely on matters of "fact," I think it's good to debate these issues. But at the end of the day, I feel it's a little like politics or religion: I'm no more going to convince you of my version of "truth" than you're going to convince me to convert to Catholicism or register as a Republican. All I can really say is that in my opinion, literary memoir isn't a newspaper article, and I don't have the same expectations when I read it as I do for journalism, biography, or autobiography.

brutus
03-02-2007, 09:50 PM
m

Penny Graham
03-13-2007, 03:27 AM
Susan, my opinion would be: No, it's not cheating.

There's quite a bit of music in my memoir too, top 40 stuff, in fact if it ever gets published, it'll have its own soundtrack! I don't remember the exact songs on occasions but I know which songs from that time period were played in the context of my subject matter -- if that makes sense. What I do is try to chose songs that truthfully reflect what would have been playing at the time but also I consider the lyrics and tone of the song and how it might fit within the scene to bring out other emotional complexities. I've found this process to be rewarding and inspiring because the songs can often add another layer of meaning to the scene if chosen carefully. So I say go for it.
Calamity,
How are you presenting the music and lyrics? Are you getting permissions? I have the same thread running through my memoir, 120 songs, and no way can I afford to get the permissions, and am going to have to weave the idea of the songs into the text. How are you doing it?

calamity
03-13-2007, 05:30 PM
I don't use many lyrics, no. I use mostly song titles. A great deal of my memoir takes place in a strip club and music is essential. I don't remember the exact songs played on occasions, but I do know which songs were popular and played in this paticular context. When I do use lyrics, it's just a few words. For example, here's a sentence from my memoir:

She glanced over her shoulder toward stage where a girl was spinning around the pole to the Turn around part in “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

johnrobison
03-13-2007, 05:48 PM
I don't use many lyrics, no. I use mostly song titles. A great deal of my memoir takes place in a strip club and music is essential. I don't remember the exact songs played on occasions, but I do know which songs were popular and played in this paticular context. When I do use lyrics, it's just a few words. For example, here's a sentence from my memoir:

She glanced over her shoulder toward stage where a girl was spinning around the pole to the Turn around part in ďTotal Eclipse of the Heart.Ē



If I might offer a suggestion . . . I think your sentence would read smoother if you said, " . . . a girl was spinning round the pole while Bonnie Tyler sang turn around from Total Eclipse of the Heart."

calamity
03-13-2007, 11:27 PM
Thanks John, I appreciate it and will use it! :)

slsherwood
03-22-2007, 07:10 PM
Have you ever read Lying by Lauren Slater? Within the text itself she questions the truth of her tale. She writes she has epilepsy and one of the symptoms of epilepsy is lying, but then she asks the reader to consider that she doesn't really have epilepsy and that she is just using it as a metaphor. It's a great book of how a memoir writer can be honest with readers about this struggle -- dealing with Truth versus truth.

Having said that, I have a journalism background too and tend not to embellish in my memoir writing, but I also recognize what I am doing is just one person's version, and I want that to be clear to the reader.