A memoir without a trustworthy story-teller is just another piece of fiction.
There’s been a storm raging in an on-line writers’ group to which I belong. The argument is about whether it’s OK for memoir-writers to change the names of people and details of events in their stories. It seems some writers feel the need to protect themselves from legal action. Others fear the wrath of those they write about. Yet others want to protect the vulnerable.
Reading memoirs is a passion of mine. I write them, too. I’m amazed that it’s taken so long for me to write about my passion here.
During the three years of my PhD candidacy at Edith Cowan University I wrote a memoir and grappled with ideas about what makes a trustworthy story-teller for a major essay.
I came to the conclusion that what sets memoir-writing apart from fiction is that the memoir-writer can say, ‘This happened; these people and places existed; these thoughts, feelings and opinions are mine. This story matters because it tells the truth.’
A memoir-writer deals with limited facts. He or she makes a pact with the reader that the honesty of the memoir lies in its emotional truth.
Readers share the pact with memoir-writers. When readers accept that what they’re reading is the truth, they imply that they understand and respect the sincerity of what they are told. While they may not share the writer’s values they’ll accept them as the writer’s reality.
Telling the truth in life writing is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics. Ethically, to falsify a story by changing names or events is to damage the relationship between writer and reader. Because of the reader’s trust, a writer occupies a position of power. If he or she distorts the truth or tells blatant untruths it creates a false world.
Dealing honestly with limited facts demands storytelling skill, not falsification.
Writers should share insights about what matters to them, what preoccupies them, things for which they have a passion. Memoir is a way of using creative and artistic means to tell a wide readership about places, people and events without preaching, lecturing or hiding behind falsehood.
Such writing is a political act.
It is possible to present an ethical expression when writing about the ills of the world.
This is true even when one is the survivor of abuse or adverse events. One way is to position oneself as a confessing subject, and to reveal personal details and to describe the effects of the conflict, contradiction and disruptive adventures which led to the story.
Memoir is about the teller as much as the story. The genre requires the subjective voice of the trustworthy story-teller to be clear, conspicuous and unmistakable. As readers, we expect the writer to express a personal opinion.
The writer’s thoughts, feelings and musings about people and events are even more significant when they are portrayed in a way that is compassionate towards others and detached about themselves.
The credentials of a trustworthy story-teller include the person he or she has become as result of the experience, as well as the scars that are left.