Memoir and Truth

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.


3 Responses to “Memoir and Truth”

  1. 1 Suzannah October 12, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Two clarifications:

    First, Jamey Frey did not record his “memory-truth.” He knowingly wrote things that were false and that either never happened or that happened but didn’t have anything to do with him, and he told it as though they were all truthful accounts of his life. He is just one of many writers out there who think they can get away with passing off what they know is fiction as truth. His was not a case of him writing his life the way he remembered it. Even if he had printed a caveat before his story, he still would have been slammed– and rightly so. How dare he think he can manipulate readers that way.

    Second, someone CAN sue you for libel and/or defamation for what you write about them no matter if it’s true or not. The question is not whether they can use, but whether they can win the suit. Truth is an absolute defense. If you can prove the truth of what you have written, you win the suit. And if they can’t prove the falsity of what you wrote (and you can’t prove the truth), you may still win; it depends on what the trier-of-fact (judge or jury) believes is the truth, based on the evidence. But people can always sue, and being sued is no fun.

    (This is not legal advice and is not to be construed as such. Please consult an attorney before acting on the above.)

  2. 2 Suzannah October 12, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Typo: “The question is not whether or not they can SUE, but whether they can win the suit.”

  3. 3 Irene Watson, Reader Views October 13, 2009 at 4:42 am

    I know of a publisher that was recently sued by the family of the author. The author exposed the abuse in his childhood and of course the family denied it. After many months, and thousands of dollars later, the publisher was cleared.

    The caveat I have in my personal memoir starts with “This narrative, according to my memory and perception, is of my life…” I have been accused by relatives that my story can’t be true because that’s not how it looked. Denial is a concept many practice.

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Quote of the Week

"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me

I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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