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telling the truth

Solving Problems of Telling the Truth in Your Memoir

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Telling the truth is not always easy. How much of what happened do you have to tell in order to tell the truth? 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 […]

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?

Telling the truth is not easy

In that sense, her diaries have always seemed to me to contain a fundamental lie and avoided telling the truth. Nin clearly wanted her readers to believe that she lived independently as a woman and a writer. The fact of her husband’s support makes it evident that the self-sufficient persona she projected was wishful thinking. How much truth to tell is always a subjective decision that can be made only in the context of the writer’s life and family. The following are considerations to keep in mind as you decide how to solve telling the truth.

1) Withholding information can significantly alter your reader’s interpretation of a story.

Sometimes, telling a story without all the information is really telling a lie. Aren’t you lying when you choose to hide a part of the truth that alters how a story can be interpreted? (Remember Anais Nin.)

2) Conversely, writing memoirs is not the opportunity to tell everything!

Nor is your memoir the occasion to impose your version of an ugly scene and get your revenge on the people who are not available to defend themselves.

In a conversation, when someone tries to get you on his side, don’t you feel that your goodwill is being abused? Your readers will feel abused, too, if your goal is to enlist them against someone else. Your readers are looking for understanding–not for partisanship! You may unwittingly force them to stop reading in order to protect their own integrity.

3) You do not have to tell something you do not feel comfortable telling.

You have the right to your privacy and do not have to divulge details that you do not want to share.

This is different from withholding information to affect the reader’s understanding (see #1 above). A case can easily be built around your need to protect yourself! You are neither an exhibitionist nor a masochist. Relationships, and your dignity as a person, are sometimes more important than the truth. This is your decision. Be aware that you have the choice–but don’t ever hide the truth from yourself even if you choose not to share it with others.

4) Be wary of recording someone else’s views of your life or of the lives of other family members.

For example, within a family, stories sometimes acquire the status of the “official” version. Writers will assume these stories are true and opt to record them one more time.

These “official” stories are often initiated by the dominant parent (the one who makes the rules or sets standards in the family). These stories serve as “propaganda” for that parent’s point of view. In many settings (family, work, politics) non-dominant individuals and groups are evaluated on the criteria set by the dominant one. Writing family stories that step outside the established doctrine can be one of the major challenges life writers face in truth-telling. Don’t underrate the difficulty of this; choose to deal with this challenge courageously, and perhaps repeatedly.

Be a sleuth. Go beyond (or beneath) the apparent story to get at the real story. Be honest with yourself–and write the story your intuition tells you is true.

Good luck writing your memoirs!

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2 Responses to Solving Problems of Telling the Truth in Your Memoir

  1. Revenge and lies are never the best way to tell one’s story. One thing I’ve noticed is that my narrative changes over time. The memoir (rough draft) I wrote 25 years ago was raw pain, not well developed. As I grew and changed over time, the raw pain transformed. I saw lessons in the past and new ways of looking at the old situation. I suspect any author writing a memoir years later might come do different conclusions with the same details.

    Best example is that, before I was 16, I believed God was absent from my life. I saw Him as the great abandonner, the one who did not answer prayers, did not stop the abuse. Now, I see that He was there, just not the way I expected Him to be there. He was in the “nots.” What did not happen. I did not get pregnant by my father, did not go insane, did not get killed, etc. So God was there, but it took years of healing to be at a point where I could receive and share that truth.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Dear wondering04,

    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree with you that our perception of our lives changes over time. Perhaps that is as good a reason as any to write several memoirs—serial memoirs of our lives.

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