Writing Your Version of the Truth

by Memoir Mentor on June 20, 2011

When I grew up, family vacations meant going on what we called a “fishing trip.” They were inexpensive—my parents had little money—and Mom and Dad loved to fish. I didn’t. When I think of those vacations, I remember interminably boring days sitting on the hard, dirt bank of some drab lake, swatting gnats and flies, and counting my mosquito bites. I tried to pass the time reading, but the hot sun glaring off the pages made my eyes water. I hated those trips.

I mentioned this to my brother recently, and he had a completely different view of things. He remembers those vacations with great fondness. You see, he LOVED to fish, loved the quiet of the lake, the clicking sound of the line leaving the pole when he cast, the mental gamesmanship with his prey. He feels nothing but gratitude to my parents for introducing him to a hobby he enjoys to this day.

I say to-mah-to; he says to-may-to. If you have a sibling, you know what I mean. We can grow up in the same family and remember experiences completely differently. Or we may remember something happening and have a sibling swear it never occurred. These differences may provide fodder for a spirited conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table, but, generally, they’re nothing to get in a stew about—unless you’re writing your personal history.

You’d be surprised how many of my students worry about writing a story that a relative remembers differently. It can be paralyzing for some people.

When someone comes to me with concerns like these, I typically ask her how much it matters to her story. If it’s something as innocuous as a difference of opinion about a family vacation, own your own truth. You’re writing the story. If your brother wants to set the record straight with his truth, let him write his story.

Some families have famously done so, but it’s generally about matters more serious than family vacations. After Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes, his brother Malachy wrote his version of growing up in the McCourt family with A Monk Swimming. The same thing happened when Augusten Burroughs wrote Running with Scissors. Since then the author’s brother and mother have penned their own views of life in the Burroughs family.

There’s something called Emotional Truth. Something feels true to you because that’s the way you experienced it. Your sister may tell you later in life that you were the favored child. Her statement stuns you, because you always felt you never measured up to your mother’s expectations. So, were you completely mistaken all these years? Should you rewrite history from your sister’s perspective? Heck, no. You grew up feeling one way and that feeing infused your relationship with your parents and your whole view of yourself. That’s your emotional truth. Write it as you remember it.

Of course, our feelings can change over time. I now have a different perspective about the girl I was in high school than I had at seventeen, or even twenty-five. Which version should I write? Which version is truer? They’re both true, of course, but the version you tell depends on the scope and purpose of your story. If you’re writing a coming-of-age story like Jill Ker Conway’s Road from Coorain, you’d likely try to write from your adolescent perspective. If you’re creating a whole-life story written from the vantage of a mature adult, you’ll probably write about your youth from an adult point of view…or maybe not.

Truth issues can cause all kinds of dilemmas for memoir writers. We’ve touched on only a couple of them here. Some issues, like disagreeing about family vacations, will raise few eyebrows if you commit your truth to paper. Things become much stickier, however, when they involve the reputations of family members. In such cases, do your research, get your facts right, and proceed with caution, weighing the role a particular issue plays in your story with the potential repercussions you may face by putting it in print.