Monday, February 17, 2014

Telling the Truth

When I am helping someone write their memoir, I am often asked questions like, “How much of the truth should I tell? Should I leave some parts out? What if I hurt people’s feelings?”

These are good questions. No one can tell all the truth. If we did, our stories would be ten thousand pages long and bore others stiff. No one cares how many times you brush your teeth each day, after all – unless of course your memoir is about how you kept your own teeth perfect and never had a cavity. Otherwise, your teeth, important as they are, have little place in your memoir.

Then there’s the fact that there is no such thing as definitive truth. Others will view the events in your story differently than you do. Once I had twin sisters in one of my writing memoir classes. During the writing period of the class, they both chose to write about going to their first school dance. That they both chose to write about the dance was a confirmation of how twins may think alike, but the stories they told were very different. One twin swore they both wore green dresses, the other said they wore black. One twin said she danced cheek to cheek with Rodney the president of the junior class; the other said Rodney shunned them both and broke their infatuated hearts.

So when people ask me, “Should I tell the truth?” I like to answer with a quotation from Quaker author, Philip Gulley (Hometown Tales): “History is about facts; stories are about truth.”

Facts and truth are not the same. Truth is the meaning behind the facts. You can embroider the facts until they are almost invisible, but the story they tell can still be true. Other facts can be told plain and direct, with each and every detail and date exact – and yet the story can still tell a lie.  

When you write your memoir, you become a storyteller. Keep your facts straight, but don’t let them get in the way of truth.

Readers, this is post #1,500 since we started this blog, and that's the truth! Thank you for being a part of our team, Kim. Thank you, friends, for stopping by every day and sharing in the conversation. ~ Dani Greer, Chief Red Pencil

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.

17 comments :

  1. Given what we now know about memory--that memories are reconstructed, revised, and refiled on each recall--facts are elusive and truth malleable.

    I doubt I will ever write a personal memoir, but I am working on my first historical novel, a concoction constructed of the fistful of facts I do know about my ancestors. It is both freeing and burdensome to know so little and need to invent so much. Still, it is fun!

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    1. Sounds like an exciting project. I too know just a "fistful" of facts about my forebears, and I do enjoy speculating about how they might tie into my family today. You are right that it is fun.

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  2. Lovely, short and well-expressed piece, Kim. And it's answered a personal question for me. Many people have suggested I should write an autobiography but I've always tended to shy away from the idea as it would inevitably cause distress to certain individuals. But your suggestion here makes me believe I may be able to write it in such a way that the truth emerges without causing pain. Thank you.

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    1. Another question that helps me when I'm struggling with the "truth" and how to tell it, is not only "is it true" but "is it kind?" Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't -- I guess no one said writing was easy ...

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    2. Stuart, I think another marker of "readiness" is whether you're beyond purging yourself, and have reached a point of wanting to give something to the reader - help them through your own experience which might very well be shared by others at some level. Then you have the potential to write a really powerful memoir.

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    3. I always want to give something to the reader; it's why I write, Dani. My life experiences are more 'interesting' than dramatic or extreme, I think. As for purging, I suspect the very act of writing the memoir would be cathartic; the need to select and to face certain uncomfortable facts concerning self as well as those with whom we interact is bound to separate 'fact' from convenient memory. But my specific concerns relate to the portrayal of certain important individuals in my life who would undoubtedly see my revelations as negative to them. Often it is those who have done you most harm who are totally unaware of their influence and, in fact, are self-deluded enough to assume that they have been a positive influence. I'm essentially a novelist, so, perhaps, it is time for that ubiquitous 'autobiographical' novel. That way I can tell the truth and protect the innocent along with the guilty by the simple expedient of changing names, etc!

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  3. This is a really cool piece, Kim. Family history can be lost if no one records it; and as older ones pass on, so much knowledge about the personalities that shaped today's family dies with them.

    In the late 90s, I did an expandable family history book complete with scanned photos and documents, some of which dated back to the Civil War era and even prior to the American Revolution. Its pages pictorially followed several generations down to the present and included a family tree that starts in the 1600s and traces my ancestors to this country before the American Revolution. Lots of little anecdotes collected from seniors who are now gone and old obituaries provided a wealth of information about the deceased — whether totally factual or not, I don't know, but they were interesting to say the least. One of my grandfather's poems and a scan of my grandmother's watercolor paintings grace some pages, and tidbits about long-gone relatives give family members an incredible peek into the past. It's strictly a personal treasure that can be updated when new grandchildren arrive. Although a daunting project, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with folks I hadn't seen in decades and learning about those I had never met, as well as perusing the morgue files in a small city library where I mom's family lived as I tried to learn more about my great grandmother who came from Belfast, Ireland. I still know very little about her, but I'll take up the search again soon because I want to adapt some of the information as background for a fiction novel.

    While my book may not qualify as a memoir, it does give us a link to a past that otherwise most family members would never know. Is that important? Remember "Roots" by Alex Haley? It's important – at least to some of us. Thank you so much for sharing this article, Kim. You've inspired me to begin updating my album, which is now 15 years old. Lots of babies have arrived since then. :-)

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    1. Wow, so exciting, Linda. Especially because I am working on a similar project right now for my own family. Perhaps we can compare notes and share techniques?

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    2. Kim, I would love to chat with you about this. Please e-mail me at the address in the BRP office. :-)

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  4. Congrats to us for reaching the milestone of 1,500 posts, and what a good one to claim that title. I hope anyone who is considering writing a memoir reads this. And you are so right about perception of an event. My daughter just sent me two pieces that she wrote about memories from her childhood as part of an assignment for her Master's class. It was interesting to me to note that she saw the details of those events differently than I did, but the truth was there.

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    1. I am honored to be #1500 here. How cool that you have a daughter following in your writerly footsteps, Maryann.

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  5. I always feel I'm revealing too much of myself in my fiction - I'd never be able to write a memoir (plus it would be about as interesting as a loaf of white bread). Early in my fiction writing, when I would use real life examples/experiences, my critique partners would echo their writing professor. "Just because it's right doesn't make it good."

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    1. Terry, you might be surprised by how interesting your boring life is to other people! You're a storyteller - you can make your own life interesting with the right words. Try a few chapters using 3rd person POV. You might be surprised.

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  6. I love the quote that history is facts and stories are truth!

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  7. This is great, Kim! I've seen that so many times in teaching memoir classes--one sibling will remember things totally different from the other! That makes it fun!
    Congratulations to us for 1500!!

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  8. In the news business, we rely on something called attribution. "The police say…" or "The White House claims…" I've taken the habit of saying "As I recall…" whenever I'm not 100% sure if I remember things correctly. It's helpful, I think, to remind people where your information is coming from.

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  9. Each event or memory in one's life is unique to that person. Even if ten people experienced the same event at the same time, they're quite likely to re-tell it in their own way.
    Thanks for the post, Kim. Very interesting.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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