Writing Memoir: The Perils of Research 3

YOU ARE WRITING YOUR MEMOIR. Memories are the basis of memoir, and we all know how fallible memories are. Naturally, you want your memoir to be as truthful as possible, so you set out to research the truth.

You choose your methods:

  • Interviewing family members and friends.
  • Going to the library and reading newspaper archives from the period about which you are writing.
  • Reading old journals and letters (yours and family members’) to verify dates and events.
  • Googling world events.
  • Traveling to your old hometown to visit old haunts and refresh your memories.
  • Read books of history and psychology about the issues or themes raised by your experiences.

And when you’re done, you have notebooks filled will references and ideas and statistics. Your bookshelf is filled with relevant works. Your web browser has more bookmarks.

You wonder, Is it enough? How do I incorporate this research into my story? How do I sift through all this materials? Should I do more research just to be sure my facts are accurate accurate?

Before engaging in investigating the surrounding times and facts of your memoir, consider the following.


The Perils of Research

  • You can get hung up on research and let it get in the way of writing. All too often, research becomes a reason to procrastinate — it’s so much easier than diving into the painful emotions of your past.
  • Now that you’ve done all that research, you feel the need to include everything — all those delicious facts — in your story. But all those facts will only choke your story, leaving it high and dry and without heart. Like anything else you add to your memoir — description or dialogue or a research tidbit — it must move your story forward. It must be essential to the core of your theme. Facts are good for you to know. They inform you and can provide more depth to your story. But research must serve the story’s needs, not your needs to provide information.
  • Research alters your memory. This was one of my biggest concerns when researching my mother’s journals for Not the Mother I Remember: I was afraid that reading my mother’s perceptions would subtly alter my own. And it did. Once I was able to understand an event through her eyes, my own viewpoint shifted slightly. I decided to handle this by first writing down what I remembered, then reading her journals. I also wrote about how seeing through the world through her eyes shifted my own viewpoint. Ultimately, that transformation became one of my narrative themes.

Yes, it’s important to research the facts in your memoir — don’t try to write your memoir without it. However, I recommend writing what you remember, first. Get your truth onto the page. Then research what needs investigating and incorporate what you have learned in a way that contributes to and moves your story forward. Add only what provides depth and helps your readers’ experience.

[bctt tweet=”All the research in the world will not make your memoir 100% factual.” username=”writingthrulife”]

The truth is that all the research in the world will not make your memoir 100% factual. It can only be YOUR truth. YOUR story. There will be people who remember the events you are writing about differently. What makes their memory any better or more factual than yours? Memoir is not necessarily about exactly what happened, but how you remember it happening.

Memoir is about your perceptions, feelings, and responses and how they affected your life. That’s the story you want to write.

Have you fallen for any of the perils of research?
Please share your experience in the comments.


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3 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: The Perils of Research

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    I appreciate the perspective that research brings to my memory and to my memoir. The only trap I’ve fallen into is following all the bread crumbs too long before writing my memoir. So to avoid getting too much dry information, I write the heart of a piece or section of the memoir first, capturing my feelings, thoughts, and emotions. I make note of what I remember of events, people, sights, smells, tastes, etc., so those become the force behind what I write…only using what I need to add depth to the memoir I’m hoping to create.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sara – exactly. I find the same, that it’s best to first get down your memories, including sensory information, emotions, and sequence of events, then using research to add depth and avoiding that temptation to add too much information for information’s sake.

  • Stacy Holden

    This post speaks to me as a historian! How do we excavate for cold-hard “facts” among our landscapes of memory. As you note, Amber, it is just not possible to deal with more than perceptions, feelings and responses when we write about our own life. Our perceptions act as a filter, making the past into a lived experience. The “facts” that one finds interesting are part of the story of one’s lived experience. Why do we choose, for example, to focus on that popular song when writing about our childhood? Why do I remember that horrible news story, but not others that happened around the same time? Etc., etc.? There are billions of ways to contextualize your story within its historical moment, and I think we always must consider just why certain “facts” seem more real and relevant than others.