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Memoir: The line between truth and fiction

November 19, 2009

On a memoir-writers-for-hire listserv. someone asked, apropos Sarah Palin’s current book, Is it okay to use a memoir to get even with those you feel have harmed you in the past? This excellent response from Susan Owen is reposted here by permission:
“This is a free country and people have the right to act as inappropriately as they wish. About the line between truth and fiction, which is often hazy, here's my response:

"1) If you are writing a memoir to be remembered, you obviously are entitled to present not just the facts but your slant on them. This is what makes your book personal, what gives the reader -- those who know you now and those who will read about you long after you're dead -- a glimpse into your uniqueness as a human being. And each of us is unique, with an important story to be told, which is why there are no "ordinary" lives.

2) Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, the circumstances surrounding an event or interaction are lost to memory. When we create dialog to bring to life a conversation that happened long ago, or provide a physical description of a person or place, we do the best we can. Perhaps the sofa in Aunt Evie's house wasn't brown; maybe it was dark red, or maybe all of Uncle Henry's teeth weren't crooked, just a few of them. This is called perception -- what we recall, the impression it made on us at the time, and how such impressions have shaped us later in life. This is not lying; this is doing the best we can with the materials available to us.

3) On the other hand, if we have access to concrete factual information that we choose to ignore in favor of fantasy, this is no longer "poetic license," if you will, but either laziness or a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader. And this, in my opinion, should be anathema in memoir-writing or any other kind of writing that is not labeled -- purely and simply -- fiction!

4) Any person's life, unless they have spent it in a cave as a hermit, touches on historical events around them, and so any story will be a blend of personal recollection and historically checkable fact. For example, a writer might describe in detail his whereabouts on, reaction to, and subsequent life changes because of September 11, 2001. Within that description there is a lot of room for interpretation. He or she cannot, however, write that the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 10, or on September 12, or in 2002, or that the perpetrators were aliens from Mars.

To the extent that Sarah Palin's book states facts that have been proven to be false, whether such falsehoods are related to her specific activities or not, she has done both her readers and herself a disservice. This is not "writing what you know." This is either "writing what you want, regardless of reality," or "not remembering what happened and not having the intellectual integrity to verify the facts." Some who are fans of Ms. Palin do not care. After all, there are a substantial number of people in the world for whom facts are an irritating nuisance. Groups of these people, despite irrefutable scientific and historical evidence to the contrary, believe such fantasies as "the Holocaust never happened," "the Earth was created, literally, in six 24-hour days," and "the world is flat."

A thinking person is not writing for this crowd. For the rest of us, freedom of expression is not a license for fraud, however well-intentioned."


Thanks for that to Susan Owens (Tales for Telling) in Lexington, Kentucky. You can find her on the website of the Association of Personal Historians ,on whose listserv this was originally posted.