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The Importance of Facts in Memoir Writing

The importance of facts in memoir writing

The importance of facts in memoir writing such as dates, addresses, names, and relationships, are one of its special feature.

Memoir writing cannot, without deleting from its value, omit dates and specific identification of locales, names of individuals and their relationships to one another. Memoir writing is factual writing: hence the importance of facts. A memoir without these facts is like a map without route numbers. Whether I know the people in the stories or not, I always want to be able to move easily in the complicated terrain of relationships and the sequence of events so that I might, through reading, form my own views about the character. Hence the importance of facts in memoir writing.

How facts in memoir writing make a difference

Facts help us to evaluate. That someone started to play with the symphony orchestra at age 15 is very different from starting to play at age 20 or at 25. At fifteen, one is a prodigy; at 20, gifted; at 25, talented. It is impossible for the reader to assess subtleties of character without this information that again underlines the importance of facts.

Facts determine relationships with precision. I want to know whether Uncle Ralph was Grandmother’s youngest brother, or Grandfather’s older one. Or, even more complicated: was he in fact a cousin who because of a close relationship, was always called Uncle Ralph. The writer may know the answer but it’s almost guaranteed that the writer’s grandchildren will not and certainly the grandchildren’s children will not. The reader who has bought the book will be unable to capture the nuances below the surface of the story without these details.

Facts help the reader to locate parts of the past shared with the writer. When you say you were born downtown in a tenement–exactly where was that? Was it on Oak, or Birch, or Walnut St.? Besides helping the reader to interpret your story, this information certainly will make it possible for someone to go to the actual site where you were born, or empathize because of his or her own experience.

Facts help the reader to maintain an independence from the writer. When these sorts of details are omitted, the reader is forced to rely on the writer to understand what the story might mean. (Most readers are not comfortable with this relationship to the writer.) Sometimes, factual writing is also important if readers are to know which parts of a lifestory is appropriate to apply the lessons of to their own lives.

There’s not getting around the importance of facts. We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone in person after having been “told all about them” through another’s description–only to realize that the description we received reveals more about its author than its subject. The importance of facts in memoir writing is indisputable.

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3 Responses to The Importance of Facts in Memoir Writing

  1. Chris Madsen May 2, 2013 at 7:30 PM #

    You’re absolutely right, Denis. Memoirs depend on facts. If they are not factual accounts, they are not memoirs, they are fiction. I think the issue becomes knowing where to draw the line, however, between factual precision and memoir “fuzziness.”

    Yes, of course, we need to know that Bobby was born on July 12, 1935, but we don’t need to know that it was at 4:15 in the morning, unless an earthquake happened 10 minutes later. If July 12 was an ordinary day in Kansas, then 4:15 in the morning is insignificant–let it go, no matter how hard you worked to find it out.

  2. Mary Harvey May 3, 2013 at 2:10 PM #

    I have lots of facts and historical documentation about our family spending summers at a particular location since 1879, and about my 60+ years of summers at the same place. How do I weave the historical documentation into a memoir? or is memoir not the correct genre? There are many common themes for each generation of the family but with differences depending on who the players are. It is hard to write dialog for people I have only seen pictures of. Just looking for some suggestions on how to make it work, so that my children will know the stories. They will sell the place after I am gone because they both live thousands of miles away from the cottage.

  3. Avatar of Denis Ledoux
    Denis Ledoux May 8, 2013 at 10:27 AM #

    Good for you to record the stories of your family’s summer retreat. Without seeing your manuscript, I will suggest a few ideas:

    1. Just start to write your stories. Don’t be concerned with order or linkage or common themes. Don’t worry about finding character traits that persevere through the family, etc. Let the camp and the seasons be the core.

    2. Gather the stories together and place them in sections: The Early Years, Mid -Century, New Guard, etc. The distant stories will be fewer and therefore the sections will cover a broader span of time. Or, you may have two sections: Before Me and Me. It’s entirely possible that the story before you were at the camp does not equal the story of when you have been using the camp. No problem.

    3. Make references to information in prior sections: “The shed my grandmother had had built in 1935 was torn down in 1976 and rebuilt as a kitchen.”

    4. Links can be created via photos as much as via words.

    I hope this helps. Please, send me a vignette of camp life for this blog.