Guest blog by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder
More than a decade ago I attended a workshop offered by one of my favorite authors, Pam Houston. Houston offered many nuggets of wisdom that have served me well, but one thing she said has informed my writing and coaching in a profound way: Everything I write is true and some of it actually happened.
At first, this statement troubled me. I feared it offered license for falsehood, particularly in memoir. I resent those—be they writers, journalists, politicians, or friends—who embellish or twist facts for their nefarious, greedy, or merely ego driven purposes. It enrages me when I hear of memoirists who have misrepresented their experiences (or straight up lied) in order to make the bestseller list. It’s cheap and tells me that they didn’t trust their writing enough to create an engaging enough story without the lies.
I learned that Houston’s words were not a license for falsehood. Rather, she’s calling writers (and indeed all people) to a higher level of truth than cannot be embodied by facts alone. I’ve come to think of this higher level of honesty as “essential truth”.
Essential Truth in Memoir Writing
As a writer of both fiction and memoir and a coach for writers across the genres, this concept of essential truth has become a yardstick by which I measure not only simple accuracy, but a deeper level of authenticity in storytelling. Essential truth is as much about the intention of storytelling as about its factualness.
In memoir, essential truth plays out in a few ways. It means that, of course, I’m telling The Truth. I’m not going to write that I was a street junky in Paris because I think that story will sell, if that’s not the truth of my experience. Let’s file this under the “duh” category.
Beyond the “duh” of lying and falsely embellishing, memoirists encounter nuances to the notion of truth.
Memory can be fuzzy. Nobody can remember verbatim the words spoken in an exchange from yesterday, much less from years ago or from childhood. And yet, dialogue is a vital storytelling device. Sometimes the sequence of events or the exact locations of where we were when we had a conversation may be muddy in memory, or frankly, don’t matter. For reasons of privacy or legality, we may choose to protect the identities and privacy of people, so we change names. We might make composite characters out of groups of neighbors or co-workers that aren’t central to the story. We may omit mention of real people or events not integral to the story that we are telling. We may combine events or omit them or for the sake of the pacing or dramatic arc of the story.
If I’m fabricating dialogue, changing names and places, and combining and omitting characters and events, can I still write an “essentially true” memoir?
In short, yes.
Essential truth remains intact when the changes are minor, don’t alter the story’s trajectory, and don’t misrepresent the people, events, or experiences of one’s life. It makes little difference to the essential truth of a story if a conversation took place on a Tuesday or a Thursday or if we combine several conversations on a topic into a single scene. If the dialogue has been manufactured, but the gist of the conversation was represented with the intention of honesty, the core of the story remains essentially true.
Essential truth in memoir writing, as in life, is about integrity. Am I changing minor things (and letting readers know that in a disclaimer or author’s note) for the purpose of the essential truth of the story? Or am I slanting, twisting, or fabricating for some other gain?
Essential truth starts with each author being honest, first with herself then with her readers.
What about Essential Truth in Fiction?
Truth in fiction writing may seem like an oxymoron. Essential truth is also about artistic integrity. Mary Dorian Russell’s Children of God is a masterpiece of science fiction. Her characters travel through time and space and live amongst indigenous beings on other planets. It’s one of the truest stories I’ve ever read. This book is so “true” that it made my bones hum. She writes with passion about the deepest truths—faith, trauma, survival, love—that her fictional characters explore. Through her fiction, Russell writes to our most essential truth — the truth of what it’s like to be alive.
To write truth in memoir as well as in fiction is to write without gimmicks, agenda, or ego. It is to write an emotional and experiential landscape that rings true in the human soul.
Betsy Graziani Fasbinder is an award-winning genre jumping author. Her publications include a novel, Fire & Water, a memoir, Filling Her Shoes, and a how-to, From Page to Stage: Inspiration, Tools, and Public Speaking Tips for Writers. She provides both in-person and virtual writing and speaking coaching to writers and other creatives of all kinds. Visit her at http://www.betsygrazianifasbinder.com/