Inventing the Truth As You Recall


“With a little help from our imaginations, desires, and experiences,” wrote Willett Stanek in Writing Your Life, “we have the power and the privilege to invent the truth.”

“We construct our pasts in tune with our heart’s desires to become the heroes of our own myths,” she continues.

Memoir writing is not simply retelling the facts, but of constructing story from our lives. Writers weave myths out of memories. Our recollection of an event is certain to be different from someone else’s recollection of the same event: both have viewed it, and then recalled it, from our unique perspective. How often have you recounted an event in the presence of someone else who was there, only to be corrected in the details, details that are vivid in your mind? Are you wrong or is the other person wrong? Or are you both equally correct? You are correct in your perceptions, if not in factual memory. And that is the essence of memoir writing. You write YOUR memory of events, and don’t worry about other peoples’ memories.

Your memoir doesn’t have to encompass your entire life. It can be narrowed and focused, highlighting moments of change, insight, or reflection. You decide what to incorporate into memoir, and write from your point of view alone. Don’t worry about what others might think. You are writing your story, not theirs.

“Although a memoir and an autobiography are kissing cousins,” wrote Stanek, “the similarities can be slight. Most autobiographies tent to spread all over your life, like a runny batter, while a memoir can be neat, tidy, and much easier to handle and contain.

“Imagine your life rolled out in one huge piece of dough, but what interests you at the moment is your ghastly thirteenth summer. Cut out that one piece and roll the rest up for another day. Working with a small piece of your past makes it easier to keep focused.”

Don’t worry if you don’t recall every significant or insignificant fact. Write what you remember, and delve into the impact of that memory on your life. Invent what you must, but tell the truth within.

Why Write Memoirs?


I think one of the greatest legacies a parent can leave for their children is their life story. This is why I taught a memoir writing workshop in San Diego for several years. Yes, I got a small stipend for teaching the workshop, but that wasn’t my primary reason for doing it. I took great delight in helping the members of the class to recall their lives and put them down on paper, for family, friends, and others to enjoy.

We are all put down in a running river of life: our families came before us, and more will follow, but we live for a moment in that river, live a life that no one else lives. Our lives are worth recording, if only to preserve our memories. But there is another reason: our lives will never be repeated. Our times will never be repeated. So often, I have to tell members in my class that people no longer know about things that were commonplace in their lives: from one-room schoolhouses to automated cafeterias, to chokes on cars or “pinning” your girl.

Each life is unique and each should be captured on paper. Not all must be published, but they should be shared. Future generations will enjoy these personal snapshots of life.

Write Your Memoirs, As Your Legacy


With every new memoir-writing client I encounter, I am struck anew by how important it is for each of us to write our memoirs. It doesn’t matter whether we write to publish, but we should write not to perish.

Our stories can be the greatest legacy we give to our children, or to those who come after us. No two people have the same story; it’s simply impossible. Each of us has been dropped into the river of time, within a family, within a legacy already written. We each then go on to form our own legacies, and that is the gift that we can give to others.

I am as guilty as most people who think, who cares? My kids won’t be interested. I’ll just be writing for myself. But when I read to the stories by my clients, I realize the treasure being conveyed. Stories about the author, about the family that came before, and the family that they joined. If not now, then later, these stories will be valued beyond the writer’s greatest expectations, because they will be a piece of the writer, a touch with what has passed.

My clients write about their first encounter with spouses, about moments of great childhood pain that imprinted the adult, and about people in the family long gone, bringing them, if only briefly, back into the flow of time, remembering that they existed and mattered for one moment. What more can any of us ask?

Take the time, as I vow to do, to write about your life. You don’t have to write chronologically. Just jump into a moment in your life and write. Whatever you put to “paper,” your family will enjoy. And if you never share it, at least you will relive the memory and the moment. You don’t have to write about the dark times, not if it’s still too painful. Write, instead, about a childhood triumph, even if it’s one only you know about or might remember. Or write about a fear that haunted, but was then overcome. Or about that game where you made the difference. This can be cathartic, but it can also be invigorating. Remember the you you used to be? Reclaim yourself, as you remember yourself. And live the you you once knew. I dare you!

Vignettes and a Timeline


Unlike an autobiography, a memoir doesn’t have to start with the date of your birth, the location, and a cast of characters present at the time.

A memoir can focus on any event in your life, and include as many or as few events as you deem necessary.

A timeline is a way to chart the turning points in your life. Creating a timeline will allow you to see how the stories fit into linear time, how your story coincides with other events in your family’s life or in the world. From a turning point, you can move forward or backward in your life, and relate to things that had passed or were to come.

Don’t try to write your memoir from beginning to end initially. If you choose to create your memoir linearly at a later point, that’s fine. But when you first start, I suggest you write “vignettes,” little stories of your life. These can be major turning points, such as a time when you moved, or graduation, or marriage, etc., or they can be simple moments in time that stick in your memory: a sunset or the time you first counted to one hundred or when you finally understood the meaning of a word.

I cannot tell you what turning points you must write about, but our memories abound with memory-moments that are unique to each of us. Write these moments, in no particular order. Just get the moments on paper, or computer. Later, you can arrange these vignettes in a meaningful manner, but at the beginning, just get them written. And then record each moment on your timeline.

This might not seem important initially, but as the vignettes begin to add up, and you chart them on your timeline, you might begin to see a framework for your life story. A way to organize. A theme.

Each memoir has a focal point, a theme that becomes the unifying force in the book. You might think you know what that focal point is when you begin. Or you might have no idea. But by writing vignettes, and charting them on the timeline, I guarantee you will open yourself to some surprises.

Inventing the Truth


If you are planning to write your memoirs, I can highly recommend several books for you to read, on writing memoirs.

One of my favorites is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, a renowned writer, journalist, literary critic, and teacher. The book is a collection of essays by Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Alfred Kazin, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Eileen Simpson, many of whom you will recognize by name.

This isn’t just a how-to book; those abound. Rather, this is a book about their discoveries and how they came to write their now-famous books:

  • Russell Baker explains why his first draft of Growing Up was a disaster.
  • Frank McCourt reveals how he finally learned from his students how to write Angela’s Ashes at the age of sixty-four.
  • Annie Dillard notes how writing An American Childhood made her confront the memoirist’s central dilemma: what to put in and what to leave out.

This book is indispensable for anyone writing a memoir.

As you read this book, I welcome you to visit this site, to learn more about writing memoirs.

When the moment comes when you need an editor, I will be here, ready to help.

Bon Voyage!