Trustworthy story-teller

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.

A memoir told by a trustworthy story-teller who lived with the Martu community in the Western Australian desert.
A memoir told by a trustworthy story-teller who lived with the Martu community in the Western Australian desert.

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.

18 replies on “Trustworthy story-teller”

    1. Hi, Rosie. It does take guts, of a kind, to write honest memoir. But it also takes a fair bit of reflection and soul-searching to discover what is the importance of the story. For me, that understanding takes away the fear of writing. It also provides me with a more detached view. When I’ve tried to write too soon after events, the writing is therapeutic rather than memoir.

  1. Maureen, I have some queries and possible disagreements. You make some strong assertions. One of them is “Ethically, to falsify a story by changing names or events is to damage the relationship between writer and reader.” As you have stated this, I disagree. It can equally be said that that it is ethically unsafe or damaging to tell the truth as it happened, including names, dates, places etc. Not for the relationship between writer and reader, but for the relationship of the writer with his/her subjects, and for their privacy. I imagine, in your book, you kept silence about some events that happened, and that you changed the names of your subjects to protect their privacy. Surely this was an ethical decision.
    I think the primary contract of a memoirist is with her material, her subjects, including herself, the truth of her memories, and it is her decision how much she will reveal and who she will protect. I think the contract with the reader is a secondary one, and since readers are diverse and will have many differing responses, they cannot be the filter through which I write. And if they don’t like my story, they don’t need to read it.

    I don’t accept that to do this is to create a false world. Perhaps I have misunderstood you. As for adverse events and abuse, my contract is always with my self, to be true to myself and to be, as you say, compassionate and honest; but as for being detached about oneself (or others), I question whether one can truly be so, and every story is biased.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As always I appreciate your input into discussions. I guess I didn’t make myself clear enough that the contract with the reader is only one of the contracts a memoir writer must be conscious of. There are others, as you rightly point out. You make some of the points that people in the on-line discussion group made. And I agree with some of what you say. It could be unsafe or damaging to others to tell the truth as it seemed subjectively to happen. And no one piece of work can contain everything, so one has to decide what to put in and leave out. That is also an ethical decision, although I think it can be a pragmatic decision rather than a distortion of truth by omission. I didn’t change other people’s names in Other People’s Country. Sometimes I didn’t use their names, but instead used people’s roles – the doctor, my boss in Port Hedland, an Aboriginal man. Actual people could be easily identified from those roles, but I had little need to use their actual names. Every story is written from the specific point of view of the writer, and in that sense I suppose one could say that every story is biased.

  2. Interesting reflection. As a reader I think that the issue of being able to trust the author is a difficult one to balance with inevitably telling others’ story’s – you want the truth but you alway wonder…..

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jenny. Difficult balance, for sure, especially from the writer’s point of view. We writers want to tell our stories and to be believed. Hence my desire to write honestly.

  3. Hi Maureen
    I couldn’t agree more. I think many memoir writers take their time finishing and publishing because of the time it takes to both come to terms with telling some truths, but also working out how best to tell them such that the emotions are communicated honestly and accurately. If you’re writing for other aims or gains, you’re kidding yourself as to which genre you should put your ‘story’ in.

    One of my favourites quotes from Abigail Thomas (in ‘Thinking About Memoir’) sums it all up for me: “The writer of memoir makes a pact with her reader that what she writes is the truth as best she can tell it. But the original pact, the real deal, is with herself. Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”

    I look forward to the discussion on this 🙂

    Lisa x

    1. Nice to hear from you, Lisa. I love the quote from Abigail Thomas.

      Sometimes I have been guilty of writing ‘therapeutically’ when I pretended I was writing memoir. Then the only thing to be done was to put the piece away until there had been time for adequate filtering, some compassion and a dash of humour. Then I could go back to writing memoir.

  4. I totally agree. I think if you want to use different names or change events in some ways you should probably be writing fiction, autobiographical fiction maybe, but fiction nonetheless. This is the simple answer and I stand by it. The complex answer comes with the next step. Once you decide that memoir is about representing the facts, the you have to be careful to choose those facts in a way that tells the truth. If you decide to leave out people or events, and of course you do because you can’t include everything, you need to make sure that what you include is faithful to the truth of your experience. If you don’t, if you exclude significant people/events, you risk producing a fairy story out of your facts. We readers may not know that, if we don’t know you, but that’s not the point is it … It’s about ethics as you say. (The aesthetics, to me, are about choosing the facts to tell your truths and presenting them in an engaging way.)

    1. Apart from deliberately changing names, circumstances and events (about which I obviously feel very strongly) truth telling in memoir is indeed a complex issue, Sue. This is because emotional truth does not entirely rest on facts and it changes with the passage of time, as new information and experiences are added to one’s stock of memories. For example, in my memoir, Other People’s Country, when I first discovered that I was to be left in charge of the nursing post while my colleague went on annual leave, my immediate emotional reaction was fear. On reflection, I came to realise that her departure provided me with a valuable opportunity to learn and to grow, personally and professionally. Both the fear and gratitude are valid; both need a place in my memoir. I was able to express fear through the protagonist; gratitude through the narrator.

  5. so how does one ‘protect the vulnerable’ whilst maintaining truth? I have no qualms about memoirs needing to be truthful – am in full agreeance – but, again, how does one protect others who might be vulnerable to the wrtier’s truth? For example, family members?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. The topic of protecting the vulnerable when writing memoir is a big one, and again depends on the personal ethics of the writer. This sounds like a cop-out, but I’d like to write another post about that soon.

  6. Great post Maureen. I totally agree with you that to change names and events in memoir for me turns it into fiction. It does more than that though as to change names is to rob people of their identity. I did a post on this recently “call me anything but don’t call me late for dinner: names and their importance. I am very interested in Paul Eakins writings on identity. He states that our parents teach us the three rules of telling life narrative at a very early age and these rules are the synonymous with the rules for identity. 1) tell the truth 2) respect the privacy of others 30 display a normative model of personhood. I am also fascinated by his theories on what comes first memoir or identity.
    I am also interested that you said that you wrote a memoir as part of your thesis for your pHD. Did you apply for ethics clearance for the memoir?
    Back to truth – if as Christina suggests you set about sterilizing your work as the most important people are the others in it, I personally think you might as well write fiction as you are not being honest with yourself, with the other people and your readers.

    1. Good to hear from you Irene. Thanks for your positive comments. Yes, I’ve read a lot of John Paul Eakin, and his work has been one of the influences on my thinking about life-writing and identity. I quoted him extensively in my PhD thesis. I also read your post. It seems the discussion I referred to in my post stirred up a lot of passionate people with strong views about naming people in memoir.

      I did apply to the Edith Cowan University Ethics Committee for ethical clearance for my memoir, but the Chair responded by saying that as I was not researching human subjects for my thesis, there was no need for an ethics clearance. I think mine was the first memoir written at ECU as part of a PhD thesis. Most people until then had written fiction, poetry and play-scripts. My supervisor was very insistent I covered all bases by seeking ethics clearance and legal advice about several issues. All of which was very easy given the status of doctoral candidates at the university.

  7. When I did my confirmation document one lot of feedback was that they felt I should be applying for ethics clearance and probably high risk. In my confirmation presentation I addressed the concerns raised and gave an argument as to why I did not need clearance and thankfully all agreed as the ethics form does not suit memoir in any way at all and you can’t alter memory.

    1. Good to know that other memoir-writers recognise that memoir does not require ethics clearance for PhD theses. Good luck with your work, Irene.

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