Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The truth will set you free.
Yep – when it comes to the good old truth, things are definitely not black and white.
The importance of telling the truth has been drummed into us since we were kids. However as we get older, we start to realise not everyone tells the whole truth, all of the time!
Truth is one of the most important and trickiest subjects to tackle when writing memoir and life stories, given that our experiences are deeply subjective. Our memories are not always reliable, particularly when recalling events that happened a long time ago. However it is important when writing memoir that we be as truthful as we can, and write ‘our’ version of the story as it happened.
Writing about our lives inevitably means talking about the people we love and have relationships with. This is when things can get a little tricky, as our perception of events cannot possibly fully match theirs. The best approach is to honour this, be kind and do no harm where possible.
But what if we’re planning to write about a life trauma, or a difficult person we have encountered, and telling the ‘whole’ truth might be a little too confronting, both for us, and for the other person or people involved? Is it ok to bend the truth, by omitting details from our story, condensing timelines, or changing peoples’ names to protect ourselves and others? Can we write the story this way and still maintain its integrity?
There are hardliners out there, who say if you write a memoir you should tell the whole truth, in all its messy glory. I think this is an incredibly risky approach.
My take is that it is ok to ‘bend’ the truth a little, as long as we are not breaking it all together. I don’t believe there is any harm in ‘fudging’ some details, for example not revealing the exact time or place events occurred, nor writing personal details about other people involved. Instead we could take a broader view of the events and people (without revealing their identities) and focus more on the personal impact, the lessons learned, and our resulting growth from these experiences.
This process does take careful handling, and it is important to ensure our story retains its ‘essential truth’ – so we are not carelessly or intentionally distorting the facts, telling ‘white lies’, or creating fictional elements because they create a better story. This is a huge no-no!
To sum up, as we tackle memoir writing, we have a responsibility to tell our truth. It’s ok to bend it a little here and there, but we mess with it at our peril!
Below are some things to consider when finding our truth in memoir writing:
Write what we truly believe to be true in our hearts
Although truth can’t be reached by consensus, it can be helpful to talk to family members and friends to get their take on events of the past. This might help to jog our memory on aspects of the story we have forgotten or missed. However we should only consider this process to be ‘information gathering’ and continue to write only ‘our truth’ from our perception.
When writing about others, honor the fact their perceptions will be different to ours, and wherever possible, be kind.
Keep these questions in mind as we write to keep us on the truth train: This is what happened to me. This is how it affected me. This is how I felt. This is what I thought about it. This is how I grew.
We must also remember the stricter rules when writing a biography of someone else. In this case it is critical we record the details exactly as they are told to us, without adding our point of view to the story. We should still, however, fact check all the details where we can, to ensure the general information is correct. But that’s another story for another day!
A final quote to leave you with…
“Remember, there are always three sides to a story; yours, theirs and the truth.”