Anyone who believes you can't change history
has never tried to write his memoirs.
---David Ben-Gurion.

Unless you want to be infamous, like James Frey, for making up important details of your memoir, you need to tell the closest truth you can about your life.

Why do I say “closest”? Because memory isn’t an exact science. Ask five witnesses to describe a car wreck and you will get five versions. They will probably share some similarities, but they won’t be the same. Why? Because each version depends on the witness’ perspective. Was she one of the drivers? Was he crossing the street and almost hit by one of the cars? Was she sitting outside a coffee house reading when it happened and looked up after hearing the screech of brakes? Is one of the drivers his ex-wife? All those things will affect how the person views the event.

Past memories

Events from our past are even more complicated. They have been intermingled with a number of other ideas and thoughts since that time. Is your memory of it clear or is it based more on what others said about what happened or your re-evaluation of events? Did your sister tell you a different version of what happened? Did your parents lie about the event? This happens a lot in many dysfunctional families. Could there be more to what happened than you remember?

Another reason our memory may not be completely accurate is that we tend to remember negative emotional events more than positive ones. This has to do with the fact that we tend to remember things outside the “norm.” You are probably going to have few memories of family dinners that were nice and everyone chatted pleasantly then you will of dinners when your father went into tirades about every little aspect of your manners. As Patricia Hampton has noted, “We only store memories of value.” The everyday stuff we let flow in and out of us. But throw us into something emotionally intense, unusual, exciting, horrifying, perplexing, and chances are those experiences will stay with us. If most of your dates with girlfriends were dinners out, a little wine, and a goodnight kiss, the date you are going to remember is the one when she took you to get a tattoo (and not just because you see the image on your forearm every morning). It sticks out because it was a different date, but it also says something interesting about you.

Finally, we may not be able to be truthful about an event because we are spilling secrets – ours or our family’s. You may not want to admit that you were glad when your grandmother died, because your parents spent all their time taking care of her and didn’t have time for you. Maybe you keep wondering if you should have married your old boyfriend instead of the guy you are married to. Maybe you don’t think you will ever love your disabled child the way you think you are supposed to. The truth is we all have things we don’t feel we can share about our feelings or thoughts. People will surely think we are weird or unkind or even downright mean if we share them. But chances are your honesty will make your readers appreciate you even more, because they have had similar feelings. We all do.

Family secrets may also stop you from being completely honest. All families have secrets, but those that were especially dysfunctional have usually impressed upon their members the need to keep it all very hush hush. You do not want to embarrass your parents or your siblings. Still, if you are going to write memoir, you must confront the truth head on.

So how do we get to the truth?

First we mine our own minds (check out the BookPleasure article I wrote on Remembering). Next, check with others who were part of the event. They may have a different version that can provide you with details and a better understanding of what happened. Don’t, however, assume their “truth” is more genuine than yours.

Finally, be bold. Be willing to face the truth head on.


Write about a time in your life you have shared with other people, but it was always a sanitized version – maybe because you were afraid that it would make them (or you) uncomfortable. Write a scene describing how you usually tell the story. Now write the real story.

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