by Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, NAMW President

The flurry about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and other memoirs that admittedly were made up hit the media with a big bang, bringing the age-old debate about what is acceptable when writing memoir—a “true” story. Every time a memoir is released that gains media attention this debate is raised. Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club, Jennifer Lauck, Blackbird, and Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, all defended their memoirs in various publications. Each of them said that some recreations of actual reality had to occur in order to write their story and make it interesting.
As a memoir coach, I find that people are worried about the ethical issues involved in memoir writing. For example, writers ask such questions as, “What if I don’t remember the exact conversation when my mother died,” or “I don’t know what clothes I was wearing the day my father went away.” I’m always moved by these innocent, caring questions, because the writer is trying very hard to be truthful and accurate, and not leave any room to be accused of dishonesty.

As I write in my book The Power of Memoir, a memoir is a creation of a story from memory using writing tools to create scenes and story that is entertaining and puts the reader in the scene. In order to reach out to the reading public and go beyond private journaling, a memoir writer must create a story that has a story arc and use dramatic structure, bringing the story alive with what we call “fictional tools”, but the story being told remains as accurately her version of what she experienced as she can make it. This may mean constructing a scene that conflates time, or creating costumes for characters to wear that we can’t be sure they wore, but our job is to be accurate and as honest as we can be about the emotional truths and as many facts as we can manage. If we change the plot of our lives because another plot would be more interesting, we are writing fiction. If we say we had relationships we didn’t have because it would make a better story, we that’s fiction.

A memoir writer needs to write a first draft that sifts through the happenings, feelings, and challenges and get them down on the page—a draft that is healing and purging—and important. Publishing is yet another stage. The writer must ask many questions of the work—how much to include, and how to write it so others can understand the story. It’s important to write a first draft that delves into all the conflictual emotional issues to clear them out of the mind, then write another draft that looks toward publication, if that is the goal.

A few years ago, Mary Karr wrote a piece in the New York Times about memoir writing:
“Call me outdated, but I want to stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at least a century. When Mary McCarthy wrote ‘Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood’ in 1957, she felt obliged to clarify how she recreated dialogue. In her preface, she wrote: ‘This record lays a claim to being historical – that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right.'”
Mary went on to talk about how much she learned, and how healing it was when she didn’t make passages in her book more “interesting” or shape them into a slightly different story. “If I’d hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I’d never had to overcome – a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties – I wouldn’t have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.”

As we write memoir, we’re reaching for something beyond our conscious selves. In the river of creativity and the search for truth, there are forces beyond us moving us along to a place we didn’t even know about, a place of healing and resolution. We can hope that James Frey also has found a resolution for his suffering, and that all memoir writers do the same, by wrestling with what their truth is and writing it out with confidence. Allow the first draft to say all the hidden things that need to be said, then turn toward “the reader’s” needs after that.