Memoir Writing and Truth

As a longtime journalist bridging into the world of memoir writing, one worry constantly pulls me back: the need for accuracy and truth.

That’s the core of balanced news reporting and writing, right? As journalists we take meticulous notes, tape-record interviews whenever we can, check and recheck facts in documents, reports and — now — the Internet (from reliable online sources, of course). And we seek the viewpoint from the opposite side, or sides — as there’s often more than just two viewpoints.

But most importantly, we make sure the quotes are accurate. The daring of writers who venture into plagiarism astounds me. As writers we even question punctuation and spelling in quotes lifted from documents — and are careful to go back and make sure, yep, that’s the way it was written in the statement.

So how does one go back in time to check the accuracy of details or quotes in remembered dialogue when helping someone write their memoir or personal history? Or check the facts of what color that favorite ball was, or who exactly was in the kitchen when so-and-so announced they were pregnant? In a powerful blog post, William Zinnser, a writer and teacher best known for his book On Writing Well, cautions, “Writers are the custodians of memory.” Boy, that puts on the pressure on the need to get it right.

Nearly a decade ago, I encountered this conundrum when pulling together a scrapbook (turned out to be two) as a surprise for my husband, Louis’ 40th birthday — a compilation of photos and stories of his life thus far. My mother-in-law allowed me to scrounge through boxes of photos she lugged from her basement, and I spent hours at the dining room table with my in-laws as they detailed the photos.

As they recounted funny stories from the past, they occasionally lightheartedly disagreed about what exactly transpired. Staring at a photograph of young Louis armed with a hockey stick and crouched down in front of the (no joke!) china cabinet, they burst into laughter remembering how Louis and his older brother, Johnny, played hockey on the dining room’s slick hardwood floor. When I inquired why Louis always assumed the goalie position, their stories began to diverge. “He liked it,” said one. “No, Johnny insisted he be goalie,” said the other. The diligent reporter in me wanted the truth and nothing but the truth. But I soon realized their memory of and disagreement about events was a great story in and of itself, so I recorded both accounts. (Louis’ memory? “Johnny made me.”)

Sometime my two worlds — news writing and personal history writing – converge. Right now, I’m deep into research on juvenile justice issues for an article I’m writing. As part of this effort, I recently read a book about the adolescent brain by Temple University psychology professor, Laurence Steinberg. One paragraph still lingers in my thoughts: “[W]e are more likely to remember the ordinary things that happen to us during adolescence than the ordinary things that occur at other ages. There is something about this time of life that burns even trivial events deep into memory.”

On the other hand, a Daily Beast headline asks, “Is Memory the Memoirist’s Worst Enemy?” The author, an instructor in memoir writing, says: “There are no rules I can put forth that clearly delineate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, at least in terms of actual literary practice. You must survey the field of possibilities, I tell my students, and draw these lines for yourselves.”

All of this got me thinking about my own childhood. I’ve often been struck by how differently my sister and I remember the same event from decades ago. Which memory is exactly correct? Does it matter? Or is what’s important how we each internalized these events, and how we have carried our own particular memories with us through our lives? These divergent imprints routinely inform our adult choices and decisions, affect our relationships with others – and most happily for me – create the unique life stories I so love to research and tell.

-Christina L. Lyons

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