Is a Memoir all Fact?

When writing a memoir, the issue of fact or fiction must be addressed. It is an issue often discussed amongst memoirists and a fear born out of a deceiving one’s readers.

The issue came to mind recently when reading the novel written about Margaret Cathpole’s life as written by Reverend Richard Cobbold, the Rector of Worthham, Suffolk (http://hawkesburywriters.org.au/margaret-catchpole-her-life-and-her-letters/s).

People in the Hawkesbury did remember Margaret according to the Hawkesbury Writers website when she lived local to them. Their memories were very different to the Reverend Cobbold’s account of Margaret’s life.

The mind can play tricks and even with the best of intentions can replay events not quite as they were. I wrote an account of a memoir of my childhood to do with the opening of the Parkes Radio Telescope.  I then went about and researched the facts of the day and surprisingly many facts were not as I remembered. Of course, I was a child, and interpreted events through my own understanding.

This doesn’t happen to everyone and perhaps not always to me in my own defence. A friend recently wrote a memoir account of her childhood and on a revisit to the place in question, all facts were true.

Two people can experience the same memory, and interpret and remember it quite differently. This is common knowledge.

Patti Miller states in her memoir book ‘Writing your Life’  Life writing is more like fiction in that subjective interpretation of experience can be more important.

Taking this into my interpretation of the day the Parkes Radio Telescope opened, I guess what this particular memoir is about is my feelings on the day in question. The story is aptly titled ‘The Leftover Children’ and so perhaps a reader would understand my writing is about the children who did not attend the opening.

Write my story
A memoir is your memories

I have remained true to my memory of that day and this was my original intent. But there is a risk of a reader seeking an historical account, not to believe my account.

Many movies are developed from a life story. Quite rightly there usually is a preface which says something to the effect of ‘based on…’. After all, movie magic has a specific role movie goers have come to expect; taking us on a journey that has a clear purpose, unbelievable experience and usually some outcome.

Life is not always equal to movie magic if taken out of context although I have to add that life can sometimes be more extraordinary than movies.  A danger I feel in writing a memoir, is to make it more dramatic than it is, thus making oneself the hero.

Still, if you identify in your memoir that ‘Aunt Sally has knock knees’ and whether it is true or not, Aunt Sally may take exception and sue you. Writing a memoir and stating facts about others does involve risk. Some say if you speak to Aunt Sally first and discuss her knock knees, she will be ok about it being in your book. Only you can judge.

I caution my clients on this by a simple statement ‘Don’t put anything in your memoir that you don’t want others to read’.

If you really want to go ahead and include defamatory information about a person, perhaps consult a lawyer.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can change Aunt Sally’s name to Aunt Peggy, because she will still know it is her you are defaming.

Of course, you can go to the other extreme and change your name as the author. This too is a tricky situation from a legal perspective, and perhaps best to discuss further with your memoir mentor.