Last weekend I taught a memoir workshop at the West Hollywood Book Festival. It’s my second year doing so and it’s one of my favorite gigs. The class overflows with enthusiastic attendees who are smart and ask great questions. One recurring question in most of my workshops is, “Are you liable if you write a memoir about a mean family member or unfortunate childhood situation?” In light of all the attention given to the exaggerations and falsehoods in James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, many people have begun to suspect memoir writers as a group, but I would like to set things straight.
The truth is when you write memoir, you are writing your truth as you remember it. It is no one else’s truth. It’s your own. You can be sued by a family member, but they might not be able to win the suit. They need to prove that what you wrote is a lie and often this is very difficult to do. When writing memoir, in either the short or long form, the best advice is to be as honest as possible. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, our memories are not reliable and they tend to play tricks on us.
If Frey would have just written a caveat in the beginning of his book attesting to this, chances are he would have not received all the negative PR that he did. Most memoir instructors, myself included, will tell you that often times, the act of writing will help you remember and that’s why I am such an advocate of keeping a journal. It is a place to practice your writing. In her book, Fearless Confessions, my colleague, Sue William Silverman coined a term, ‘memory truth,’ where she identifies memories as completely subjective. She says, “While it’s not acceptable to make up facts willy-nilly when writing about your life, it is acceptable to convey your individual version of events—your memory-truth.” I cannot agree more with this sentiment. This is great advice, particularly if you have already decided to head down the road to writing your memoir.