Writing Memoir: Searching for the Truth 7

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.

[bctt tweet=”Writing a memoir is like mining for gold.” username=”writingthrulife”]

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.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: Searching for the Truth

  • sara etgen-baker

    As I read your insightful and helpful post, I realized more deeply just how brave we memoirists are. We’re driven to write about deeply personal events and feelings. We must face our perception of events, people, and truth (not necessarily anyone else’s truth or run down of events, and people). Doing so often makes us feel alone. But we are voyagers, adventurers if you will who then must ask those deeper questions that send us on our own hero’s journey. We answer the call and propel ourselves into a maze that transforms us beautifully. It is that transformation that engages the reader and speaks to our universal souls. And as you so aptly said, AFTER drafts upon draft, AFTER spilling our guts, and AFTER revision–a truth, sometimes only a small grain of truth, becomes evident. And that truth is the power, the power of memoir. Did I ramble too much? Just sharing? Have a great day all.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sara, thank you for sharing your take on this topic. I agree that writing memoir is a brave act, a hero’s journey of sorts, and I am particularly struck with your words, “We must face our perception of events…” Writing memoir requires facing and examining ourselves and our perceptions honestly and stripped of any pretense. Only then can we find meaning and truth.

  • Stacy E. Holden

    You write transformation, and I read “happy ending.” I wonder if I am imposing an interpretation of your post that you did not necessarily intend. Should memoirs end on a triumphant high note of lessons learned and strength gained? Or can they be cautionary tales?

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Stacy, that’s an interesting point you bring up. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before. I don’t think all transformations or endings to our memoir journeys are necessarily “happy endings.” The narrator may not get what she or he wanted when he set out on the journey. But, for sure, there are lessons learned, something to communicate. People like happy endings, of course, but in real life it’s more like strength gained, or some shift to perhaps a more fulfilling life, healing of some kind. I can be poignant. I think cautionary tales may also be interesting. It all depends on how it’s handled, and the voice used. For example, a cautionary tale told with humor might be more appealing than one told in a dour tone of voice.

  • Mary C. Biehle

    just want to say thank you for the excellent “Journaling Essentials” so full of helpful information and so clearly written. Mary B.