FINDING TRUTH IS THE ELEMENTAL TASK OF MEMOIR, and what memoirists struggle with most as we write our stories. I have been reflecting on this aspect of memoir, since reading Ann Churcher’s post, “Memoir Writing: Can’t Find My Way Back Home,” in which she writes:
Searching for the truth has been the biggest burden of all. What is “truth”? I don’t mean facts – they are easily ascertained – I mean essential truth.
Churcher discusses the difficulty of retrieving memories and verifying the facts of those memories, of mysteries surrounding those memories she will never uncover because the events happened long ago and there are no remaining witnesses. And how, though this issue with memory is certainly a huge challenge of writing memoir, the greatest challenge is uncovering the “essential truth” that lies beneath the story.
What do we even mean by “truth” in the context of memoir? There are certainly truths in how we experience our lives — our feelings, interpretations, and the ways in which life events have shaped us. There are the truths of how our family interacted with the world and behind the walls of our houses. A memoir that manages to convey these honest truths can certainly be compelling to read in a voyeuristic way, as it gives readers a peek into a life they haven’t lived or experienced. (Or perhaps they have, and they needed to know they were not alone.)
But, in my mind, the real work of memoir is transformation — for the readers as well as the narrator. To be transformative, a memoir must tap into underlying and universally understood themes and provide insight about those themes. Yours is not merely a story about surviving an abusive marriage, however compelling; it is the story of women’s resilience in the face of oppression. It is not only the story of losing your son or daughter to mental illness; it is the promise of survival and eventual healing in the face of a loss so terrible, your sight goes dark and your knees give out beneath you. Your travel memoir is not about the countries visited, but about the insights gained during the journey — insights that open readers’ eyes as well as your own.
As memoirists, we must uncover and speak to these universal themes — the deep rivers of truth that run beneath our stories — because this is where the transformative power of memoir lies.
We don’t usually start our memoirs with fully formed concepts of these truths. So how do we go about discovering and tapping into them? How do we find that transformation we seek?
I wish I could give you a formula, an easy answer to that question. (For that matter, I wish I could give myself an easy answer!) The way to the truth (or truths) of story is probably different for every writer.
But here’s what I think. AFTER the first drafts of chapters and scenes, AFTER we’ve spilled our guts onto the page, which we must do uncensored. AFTER that initial writing and during the revision process, we must ask ourselves the following questions:
- What is the purpose of this scene/dialogue/sentence? What does it mean?
- What am I communicating here?
- Does this dialogue or description tap into the truth of a character? And does that characterization tap into the larger truth of the story?
- What about this scene can my reader relate to in his or her own life?
- What transformation have I experienced as a result of these events?
- In what way does this passage contribute to this larger theme?
- How have I been transformed or changed in the act of writing my story?
- What does (or can) my story offer to those who read it?
These may not be all or even the best questions. The point is to ask questions and to keep digging until you find what you are seeking.
Writing a memoir is like mining for gold. You have to keep tunneling until you find the vein of gold in the rock. But finding the gold is only the first step. Then, you must extract the gold, which involves breaking down the larger chunks of rock into small pieces and then leaching the gold out of the rock.
Translated: keep digging until you find the vein of your story, break it down into chunks (scenes), and use reflection as the “chemical” to leach the embedded truth from the surrounding rock. Then use your writing craft to form that gold into a piece that speaks to your readers’ hearts.