Memory vs. truth in memoirs

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sonyablue

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If you have to choose between the way an event is remembered and the way an event really occurred, what do you do?

Let's say you as a memoirist remember an event a certain way. You distinctly remember that your father joined XYZ Organization when you were 8 years old, and it was something that was important in your life (totally random example, not a very good one sorry). But in doing some research, you find that XYZ Organization wasn't even founded until you were 13 years old. So obviously you are remembering it wrong.

How would you handle that in writing your memoir? Do you write it the way you remember it, or write it the way it really was?

Just to clarify, this isn't something that I've run into (yet) - it's just something I got to thinking about after hearing the NPR piece on memoir this morning.
 

Writer-2-Author

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Strictly my own opinion as one who is writing two memoirs, I'd write a disclaimer in the beginning stating that this is being written to the best of my memory. While others may remember these events differently than I do, these are my memories.

But, if it can be proven like with your example above, then I would rewrite that part. If anyone can PROVE that your memory of something is wrong, readers will wonder how much else of your book is wrong.

Just my thoughts!
W2A
 

PinkAmy

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I never came across that in my memoir, but I did, in my disclaimer write that some of the incidents may have happened out of context or that the dates may be off and that if so it's unintentional. My memoir went from approximately 85-95 and some of the chronology got jumbled. I would have fixed anything I could to be accurate, if I later realized I goofed because I think having inaccuracies, even being off about dates, can hurt the credibility of the work.
 

J'Dubee

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After the James Frey memoir "A Million Little Pieces" story was exposed, I read article in the times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/opinion/15karr.html?pagewanted=print

I especially took note of this paragraph, " For many in my generation, Michael Herr's hallucinatory Vietnam memoir, "Dispatches," has become a truer record of the war than the "official" reports, which are clotted with fabricated body counts and the White House's lies."

I'm not interested in the political view of the above, but I believe several generations in the last 60, or so, years have compartmentalized and categorized writing genres to near a point of confusion.

I have a first cousin who recently told me, "Only you and I are old enough to know this, so who's gonna call us liars?"

I guess your answer is, it's what the individual author wants to leave behind -- barring any witness.

That's a quick answer and subject to revision as soon as I hit the Post Reply button.
 

Ruth2

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Thanks, J'Dubee, for posting that link.

In my memoir I'm dealing with a small slice of my life, a relationship that I can check the dialogue to get agreement that this is what was said. Sort of like "if I say this is what we said, and you say this is what we said-- then that's the story." It is after all a memoir. My memoir, my memory of what happened.

But .. did his son say "Ewwwww, Dad!" when the car emitted a foul stench and we all laughed? That's what I remember but it can't be so. His son doesn't speak English, and I don't know what would be the familiar term for "dad" in his language. So I leave it as "Ewwwwww" because that I do remember.

So for me, I write my memory. If I learn that's not the way it was, then I put the amendment in as well. But I don't erase my memory of what happened.

It was learning that Annie Dillard did not live alone by Tinker Creek when she wrote her memoir that taught me what you leave out is as important as what you put in -- so long as you do not actively intend to midlead-- and gave me the courage to write my memoir.
 

PinkAmy

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It was learning that Annie Dillard did not live alone by Tinker Creek when she wrote her memoir that taught me what you leave out is as important as what you put in -- so long as you do not actively intend to midlead-- and gave me the courage to write my memoir.

Agreed- I left out some people for the sake of confidentiality and knowing they would be uncomfortable being included. I made one person two people to disguise her identity. They changes don't make or break the story, they aren't central characters and I feel a greater obligation to people I know and care about then to people who might read my book one day.
 

Saffron

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I think if it was something that could be researched and found to be wrong (like your memory -vs- the year the club began) then yes, it would have to be corrected/rewritten/left out, but in other circumstances a memoir can be written how 'you' remember it - it is 'your' view and experience that the memoir is being written from after all. I've written a travel memoir and I know that other people on the same trip as me would probably remember it differently, but I stand by what I wrote because that is how I saw things and remember the trip.
 

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I just sent my first manuscript to Dorrance publishing entitled MY TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS IN EDUCATION subtitled, they're going to shoot kids on the playground. It is, as the title suggests, a memoir with parts of the story dating back over forty years so I said in the introduction I was taking the liberty of using quotation marks with paraphrasing as I obviously could not remember exact quotes after all those years. As I said, first book, was I wrong?? Retired Supt.
 
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PinkAmy

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It is, as the title suggests, a memoir with parts of the story dating back over forty years so I said in the introduction I was taking the liberty of using quotation marks with paraphrasing as I obviously could not remember exact quotes after all those years. As I said, first book, was I wrong?? Retired Supt.
You're fine. None of us had a tape recorder to get those quotes exactly right and even if we did, the dialogue would probably need to be changed or shortened to fit in with your memoir or your readers might fall asleep ;).
 

mccardey

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I just sent my first manuscript to Dorrance publishing entitled MY TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS IN EDUCATION subtitled, they're going to shoot kids on the playground. It is, as the title suggests, a memoir with parts of the story dating back over forty years

I look forward to reading that :) It sounds like an interesting memoir - there must be so many changes, so many theories and things proved and disproved.
 
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cooeedownunder

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I just sent my first manuscript to Dorrance publishing entitled MY TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS IN EDUCATION subtitled, they're going to shoot kids on the playground. It is, as the title suggests, a memoir with parts of the story dating back over forty years so I said in the introduction I was taking the liberty of using quotation marks with paraphrasing as I obviously could not remember exact quotes after all those years. As I said, first book, was I wrong?? Retired Supt.

I see this is your first post, and I'm not sure if you're just playing around with us, but if you haven't taken the time since you posted or prior I'd suggest you take some time to read the thread on Bewares about Dorrance Publishing - They are not a traditional publisher but a vanity publisher.

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=8500
 
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macdonald79

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Some quick thoughts on memoir writing

Memoir writing requires one to make up a lot of details. Nobody can/should expect a memoir to be a perfect transcript of someone's life. But we can expect honesty (rather than accuracy). If I'm writing a scene with some dialogue in which I can't remember a word that was really said, I just try to capture the voices of the players involved. I might come up with a witty line and wonder, Would she have said something like this? If the answer is yes, I'll leave it in my story, even though I KNOW she never said this...because it wasn't out-of-character for her, she says clever stuff all the time, so I'm not misrepresenting her character.

Other times I might compress timelines for the sake of readability, but I need to make sure that I don't make a mess things.

I can't pretend that Jurassic Park opened in the same year I graduated from high school because this wont jive with some throwaway line I had forgotten—about watching Schindler's List in my senior year of high school, a movie released after Jurassic Park. Readers pay attention to stuff like this; they're trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle and it's up to the writer to make sure that all of the pieces fit.
 

Ria13

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If you have to choose between the way an event is remembered and the way an event really occurred, what do you do?
go with the latter. if not, just write a novel. the truth has surprises and contradictions and odd coincidences you couldn't have made up anyway. if you research it I think that you will make the work stronger.

though actually you could include both versions. why not? say, "I heard this happened like this" and "they remembered it like that".
 

Birdy22

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I'd say if your memory is that off you shouldn't be writing a memoir. It would be easier to answer this question if a problem with this really came up.

In my memoir, things happen that actually didn't happen in real life, but that was because I was delusional. And it should hopefully be clear to the reader when they read it that it didn't actually happen.
 

khobar

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I had this issue come up in my memoir. I had a very specific memory. A friend who was there had a different memory of events. So I asked a third party who confirmed my friend's version. But my memory was crystal clear.

I concluded that both versions were true - they just didn't happen at the same time.

With your specific example, if you remembered something in a way that couldn't possibly be correct, you'd need to do more research and find out *why* you remembered it that way. It might not be something important, but in your example it might be something easily checked, and if someone finds a flaw like that they may lose faith in you and stop reading. (I don't think you'd run into legal issues for an honest mistake).
 

Siri Kirpal

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If you have to choose between the way an event is remembered and the way an event really occurred, what do you do?

Let's say you as a memoirist remember an event a certain way. You distinctly remember that your father joined XYZ Organization when you were 8 years old, and it was something that was important in your life (totally random example, not a very good one sorry). But in doing some research, you find that XYZ Organization wasn't even founded until you were 13 years old. So obviously you are remembering it wrong.

How would you handle that in writing your memoir? Do you write it the way you remember it, or write it the way it really was?

Just to clarify, this isn't something that I've run into (yet) - it's just something I got to thinking about after hearing the NPR piece on memoir this morning.

Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I've run into this problem several times just recently as I run what I've written past other people who were there. Where I can verify something specific, I change it. Usually.

But:

My Mom just told me that a story she told me that changed my whole life didn't happen the way I'd remembered it. In that case, since my life is based on what I'd misunderstood, I've left my story as is, but put my Mom's version in an After Words (AKA The Rashomon of Time).

Also, there's one place where I have two memories, and I tell both versions. (Unless that gets edited out.)

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

writerGDW

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Obviously, two people can have different memories of the same experience and you can be honest while having details that differ from another's memory.

For my my memoir, I did research and confirm dates and events as much as possible. All historical facts are accurate, even if my memory was different.

I also think it's okay to say "In my memory, xyz happened, but I later learned that it happened differently."
 

Gondomir

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Consider just telling the truth as you just have done in your post. In addition to points for honesty, it would make your memoir more interesting to read, I think. Also, in your memoir, you could explore WHY you remember this event incorrectly--there may be an interesting story there.
 

Bookchew

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I remember how much mess one writer got into with Oprah when his book wasn't entirely true but marketed as so.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away