Telling the truth
“I have permission [as a memoir writer] not to waffle in my writing,” I was recently informed by a memoir writer.
“Not to waffle” somehow missed the point for me.
Certainly, the memoir writer has permission “not to waffle,” but there is more that is incumbent on the writer. S/he has the obligation not to waffle. As memoir writers, “not to waffle” means to tell our truth about what happened. This is a must. Over the years, I have been amazed at how I can pick up waffling and how, in a workshop setting, others can to. Waffling just comes across waving a “red flag.” So…
Yeah, don’t do it!
But beyond “not to waffle” is telling the truth, the searing truth.
A memoir is theme-driven. That’s why we read a memoir—or, at least, why I read a memoir. I want to know about something, not as one knows with one’s head but with one’s heart. I know others read this way, too. We read a memoir to receive help in making our way through our lives.
Of the thousands of books out there now (and being published every year), the parent of an autistic child chooses a memoir of a parent of an autistic child, and a widow who wants to start her own business reads a memoir of another widow who has succeeded at starting her own business, hoping that this successful woman will help her in her own quest—if not with technical information then with motivation. Readers of memoirs are often looking for guidance, for a helping hand.
Readers want searing truth: what was the experience really like?
The memoirist has to do so much more than “not to waffle.” The reader wants things to be based on facts, on the right order. If the memoirist is not sure, the reader, I believe, wants her/him to admit as much, distinguish what’s questionably so from what is definitely so. S/he has the right to know whether or not this or that conversation took place exactly as it is being written into the story or if the actions depicted really happened. If I am not sure, it is my task to find out beyond reasonable doubt what is true, and if I cannot, to tell the reader that I do not remember clearly but I believe (but do not know) the truth to have been this or that way. The memoirist must own to the vagueness and fallacy of memory.
Imagine the parents of an autistic child reading a memoir that is stating things as true when the writer is not sure or worse, making things up. Of course, there is the maxim: caveat lector! (Reader Beware!) Ok, I’ll admit I made caveat lector! up but I do believe that the reader reasonably believes that the writer is adhering to a compact to tell the truth—the whole truth.
It is my job and the job of every memoirist to check out the details in as much as we can because my memoir (as yours) will serve as a guidepost to someone who is seeking a mentor. As a memoir writer, I look at all that I remember of what has happened to me and I presume that most of it is somehow false, flattering, or somehow just not so. Over the years, I have forgotten and altered and plain refused to remember. What to do? Make it up? No! Just say, “Well, I guess that’s the way I remember it right now?”
The memoirist must interview others, read resource materials (newspaper clippings, diaries, certificates, etc.), scrutinize photos, study the history of the era, of the particular culture or ethnic group, etc. With this work done, I begin to make more reasonable and probable guesses. I can now provide the reader a more true representation of my life experience.
Ultimately, if one takes one’s role as a memoir writer seriously, one has to honor that our words are beacons that cast light on the darkness that surrounds us all. We read to dissipate that darkness.
Life is short, and I will not read something that does not promise me this grand design and, once promised, if the memoir does not deliver, I quit reading. I have better things to do than read a memoir that is less than probing and searing in its presentation of “the truth.”
1. Is there something in your memoir that you are waffling about? Something that you do not want to say. Are you afraid of telling the truth? Is this discretion that is silencing you invalidating your memoir?
2. Just for yourself, write what you may be holding back. Is this so terrible? What might make it less terrible? Is
your tone still too emotionally charged for you to see with any perspective what might have happened?
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Have you waffled in your memoir? Write about it below. Do you have a question? Ask it. How have you dealt with telling the truth?
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