WHAT IS TRUTH IN MEMOIR? may be the most hotly debated question of all memoir-writing questions.
We memoir writers talk a lot about “our truth” and how we define what that means. What is truth after all? Is there one truth or or many? Is truth subjective or objective? Are truth and facts one and the same?
According to my dictionary, Truth is “the quality or state of being true.” And true is “in accordance with fact or reality.” But whose reality? Whose facts?
A Scientific American article about why we shouldn’t trust eyewitness accounts cites studies showing that eyewitness testimony is really a process of reconstructing memories:
The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.
Many researchers have created false memories in normal individuals; what is more, many of these subjects are certain that the memories are real.
In other words from a memoir writer’s perspective, we are the eyewitnesses of our own lives. When we dig down and retrieve memories from our past, question and sort and try to make sense of those memories (which we inevitably do), we reconstruct, or re-story them. We recreate life’s turning points, its story arcs, and it’s significance.
In the process, some remembered events get combined with others. Unconsciously, we change the weather, the time of day, the furniture, and what we were wearing to match the emotional undertones. Some memories mush into hazy impressions from which we draw conclusions. Our memoirs are creations after our own image, our stories the basis for our world view. And they are absolutely — to us, anyway — very, very real.
In an enlightening article in the Atlantic, Julie Beck reflects on the universal human practice of organizing life events in narrative form as a way of making sense of the world. According to Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah,
What really matters isn’t so much whether [the stories are] true in the forensic sense, in the legal sense . . . What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth.
And that, my friend, is the truth of memoir: our memories are stories constructed to help us understand the past, navigate the present, and give us direction for the future. The big facts — the who, what, where, and when of an event — may not vary (too much) between people, but the details, the how and the why, and the who said or did what may be remembered and told in entirely different ways.
“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” — Mary Karr
So, if memory is corrupt — or at the very least, unreliable — would it be better to call our work fiction?
“But these things really happened!” we insist. To the best of our knowledge.
And I think that’s the key. To be true, the life story we tell must align with facts and reality — to the best of our knowledge and experience.
And when you write your personal truth, and write it well, your story speaks to the broader human narrative of overcoming challenges, of survival and triumph and hope. And when it contains that kernel of universal experience, your story will resonate with your readers.
Go ahead. Write your truth.
What is your take on truth in memory?