As a reader and writer of both fiction and memoir, I find that a common denominator for what makes a story good and one that I want to read is what I call “essential truth.” Essential truth is when the story’s plot, emotional current, characters, and dialogue convey authenticity and “ring true.” This takes place in fiction and in memoir whether the story is Steinbeck’s portrayal of life during the Great Depression, Mary Doria Russell’s rendering of a time-traveling, space-traveling priest who returns to earth to tell his tale, or Frank McCourt’s depiction of life as a poor child in Ireland. When a story exhibits this quality of essential truth, the reader is free to inhabit it without feeling manipulated by an author using deception, or working with a hidden agenda. Interest level in any given story is a subjective reader experience. Believability too is to some degree also subjective. But I believe guidelines exist for writing not only quality work, but ethical work as well.
It’s important to note that while the reader of any given story might have a subjective experience of its essential truthfulness, the only control that the writer has over this quality is her intention in writing the story. One could write the absolute truth and find people don’t believe it anyway. All we can do as artists is to search our own motivations and strive to write the truest stories we can.
I’ve come up with a few guidelines that serve me well when rendering my own stories. I find them equally useful when I’m reading finished work or working with my memoir and fiction-writing students.
Essential truth in fiction writing occurs when:
1. The story is not just a rearrangement of real events, pretending they are products of the writer’s imagination.
2. The book is written with the intention of writing a high quality, engaging story rather than just pandering to current trend, writing style, or imitation in order to write what’s hot in the marketplace.
3. The similarity of the fictional story to real life is not for the primary purpose of sneakily exposing someone else, or making commentary.
4. The writer is consciously choosing fiction, with elements of fantasy and imagination, as the best way to tell the story they want to tell rather than using fiction only as a guise behind which they hide.
This leads us to the discussion of writing the “essential truth” in memoir. By its very nature, memoir should be true, right? That’s sort of the whole idea. This actually happened. That’s what makes it different than fiction.
But many truth lines have been crossed in the genre of memoir. Some of these lines have been not just crossed, but obliterated by blatant falsehoods being represented as memoir.
It should also be said that opinions vary on the notion of “essential truth” in memoir writing. Hard-liners say that memoir writers have no latitude when it comes to The Truth. They say that even changing names, compressing timelines, or omitting facts are all out of bounds in their definition of ethical memoir writing. While I understand the sentiment here, and am a major stickler for truth telling, I don’t think that it’s nearly so black and white as that.
Essential truth in memoir occurs when:
- The writer portrays the events as they took place and the story is told without intentional or careless misrepresentation of the facts.
- The writer owns that the story is her own perception of the events and writes a truthful and thorough disclaimer for any facts that she intentionally changed or omitted and for what purposes these changes were made.
- The writer owns and discloses his agenda, if there is one.
- The memoirist writes a story which bincludes both flattering and unflattering details.
- The story is fair, open to the fact that others who lived the same circumstances may see them differently and that there exist unknowns, even to the author.
When motives of commercial gain, revenge, fame, or “making a statement” enter into a writer’s work, there is the chance that the writing becomes twisted, biased, or even just influenced to such a degree that its authenticity is impaired. I’m sure that not every great work of literature has been written with ultra-pure motives. I’m also sure that pure intentions have not always resulted in great works. But as a writer—indeed, as a person—I want to strive for both excellence and integrity in what I do.
As writers, we must look for those elements in our own writing, both fiction and memoir, that ring false. We should probe our own motives for falsehoods, biases, and agendas. We should ask for the input of trusted and worthy advisors to catch what we miss and trust their guidance. We should—both in the interest of the quality of our writing and the quality of ourselves— strive to tell our most essential truth.
How do you, as a writer struggle with elements of truth in your fiction and fictional elements in your memoir writing? How do you balance your ethics as you choose and write your stories? Where do you draw the lines between memoir and fiction?