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To tell the truth in a memoir may seem simple, but in practice it is almost never so.

It is first of all not clear what the truth may be: yours or someone else’s? Then also, the truth may be submerged beneath layers of pain.

When I suggest you must tell the truth,  don’t mean the easy truth like “I had a brother and a sister,” but the hard truth that makes you flinch, a truth like “my mother disliked her kids—especially me” or “I was abused as a child.”

I think you know what your hard truth is. But if you don’t, think about those aspects of your life you don’t particularly feel like sharing. That is, those are hard to share, but when you tell the truth of those memories, you are likely to feel so much better later and to have produced a much better memoir.

When you tell the truth, you may find yourself immersed in pain. Perhaps you need to read the posts of dealing with pain in memoir writing. I do not believe that you need to hurt yourself when you tell the truth but you must learn to own your  life experience and to be honest about it.

What I have found in my workshops is that other writers almost always pick up when a writer has decided not to tell the truth and writes inaccuracies into a text. It somehow stands out so—don’t do it. You won’t get away with it with the reader.

And you—you won’t be satisfied in the end with the memoir you have written.

not telling the truth in a memoir

Not Telling the Truth in a Memoir Can Stop Your Writing

Not telling the truth in a memoir is a great way to block your writing

Many writers say they suffer from writer’s block, yet few understand that they are unable to write easily because they are is not telling the truth in a memoir. Good memoir writing depends on telling the truth.

There are a number of reasons that create difficulty in writing. I don’t want to overuse the term writer’s block because I don’t believe much in it and have seen that the famous writer’s block has been made to answer to too many problems.

1. Dealing with uncomfortable material by not telling the truth in a memoir

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work with and through pain

Work With or Through Pain: Writing Painful Memories

In this video, Work With or Through Pain: Writing Through Painful Memories, I talk about writing through painful memories. Pain is often a barrier to memoir writing. Who wants to revisit difficult times? Although delving into the past is a generally pleasant experience and promotes healing and growth, it can also be painful.

the painful truth

Tell the painful truth in a memoir, or why washing family laundry in public is difficult

It is not always easy to tell the painful truth in a memoir—in fact, it usually isn’t.

Anyone writing a memoir must face the challenge of how to tell the truth of his or her story at the same time as one does not want to cause harm or pain. I have written elsewhere about telling the truth in a memoir. Those posts have been more on the objective level—the theory of telling the truth.

A Sugary Frosting has brought me face to face – personally – with the challenge of telling the truth. I’m not a great fan of “silly me thinking I knew how to tell the truth before I had to face the challenge!” so this is not going there. No, this piece is simply an application of what I  already knew and have written about.

A Sugary Frosting is a book that I co-authored with Martha Blowen, my deceased spouse. The title to the book came from Martha’s journals. There was an entry in which she referred to her childhood as being A Sugary Frosting with life “having to be sweet and sticky.” This definitely was part of the painful truth. [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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Telling the Hard Truth in Your Memoir–Are You Holding Back?

Are You Holding Back the Hard Truth in Your Memoir?

Your memoir needs the hard truth about life—your life—and sometimes that requires exposing yourself, getting “naked.”

I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt…. we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be willing to go naked.

—Mary Sarton

Wow, going around naked! Gulp! (Better hit the gym!)

But, I guess you get the idea—psychologically and emotionally naked. Your memoir needs truth telling about life—yours—and sometimes that requires exposing yourself, getting “naked.”

I would like to change the metaphor a bit, to use a metaphor that is less startling but very graphic nonetheless. It is the metaphor of the kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

I love popcorn and enjoy eating it but there always comes a moment when I get to the bottom of the bowl and the plethora of corn kernels that have been popped into delightful puffy bites gives way to the hard half-popped or not-popped-at-all kernels. These are not fun to eat. Disappointed, I walk to the trash and throw the kernels away. [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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telling the truth

Do not waffle in 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 too. 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.

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family stories you don't agree with

Writing About Family Stories You Don’t Agree With

How do you write about family stories whose interpretation you don’t agree with?

We all have family stories that we have heard over and over again. When they are told in family gatherings, no one expects any contradiction. After all, the stories are the accepted “truth” about someone in the family. The problem is that you don’t agree with the meaning people ascribe to it.

How do you write about these family stories you don’t agree with? There’s no problem when you are in agreement with the storyline and the interpretation, but what do you do when you are not—especially what do you do when you are out of sync with other relatives in the way you interpret the story?

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telling the truth

Solving Problems of Telling the Truth in Your Memoir

When telling the truth, how much of what happened do you have to tell? At what point does withholding the truth become a lie? For instance, in all her famous diaries, as Anais Nin celebrated the freedoms of her life as an artist, she never once mentioned that she was bankrolled by a husband. True, she could not mention his name or details of his life because he had refused her legal permission to do so in print. But wouldn’t the truth have been better served if she had mentioned the working husband who paid her bills and made her artistic life free of financial constraints possible?

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Is It a Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction ?

What Makes It Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction?

I read a memoir that did well here in Maine (it’s by an excellent Maine writer)—I can’t vouch for its reach in the rest of the country. I’m left wondering if it is memoir or autobiographical fiction.

It’s an interesting book, very well-written in terms of style and organization, but my nagging doubt is that it is autobiographical fiction and not memoir. I will choose to leave the book nameless as my intent is not to be negative about it but only to use it to elucidate a point about memoir writing which I think is important to keep in mind as we write.

I have frequently spoken about using fiction techniques to make a memoir more interesting. Dialog, for instance, can be marvelous. The trick, as I have offered frequently, is to use only a few words in direct dialog (“I won’t,” she said) and then put the rest in indirect dialog (She said that was because blah, blah, blah…)

Fiction Techniques in a Memoir

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Telling the Truth About your Life

Telling the Truth About your Life

In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with subtle—and not so subtle—messages about who we ought to be, it is a bold statement to take a stand for personal truth and authenticity.

The telling of your stories is a revolutionary act.

—Sam Keen, Writer

One of the most transformative statements an individual can make is to tell his/her story with honesty and objectivity. At its best, this is what a memoir is—a statement that declares “this is who I am, who I think of myself as being.”

Lest you think that telling the truth is only about revealing scandals and unmasking abuses, let me assure you that it is more often about smaller issues, issues more within the realm of the everyday experience. [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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the memoir writing process

Is this really a memoir? You tell me…

I wrote a lengthy reply to Gayle to her question concerning my recent post, “Another Memoir Finished: What Was the Writing Process?” She asked a legitimate question about whether A Sugary Frosting is really a memoir: “Can you call it a memoir when you embellish the writings of your wife and even added stories that […]

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