Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Literary Truth in Memoir

In my memoir writing workshop at Politics & Prose bookstore, we spent some time defining fact and truth (or belief). A student added the term authenticity.

On the surface, these terms seem quite straight-forward. When they are applied to memoir, a focused examination of an element of someone’s life, they become murky. I’d argue that facts are quite straight-forward. Truth in a literary setting, however, is a larger concept regarding what someone truly believes. For example, truth could relate to rules about how someone conducts a life, spiritual beliefs or even smaller issues like how to best prepare a good cup of coffee. We should all agree on facts, but it is possible that we will disagree about truths.

In this sense, the author needs to consider what she believes. A good beginning exercise is to write a draft for This I Believe. This format asks you to describe one of the main truths you hold about the world. That is to say, how do you live your life and how do you know this?

One important aspect of writing is the emotional truth of a piece. This isn’t a belief about the world, but rather your emotional response to an event. Determining what the emotional truth is will help to guide your plot, tone and point of view. It will also help you to connect with a reader who has experienced that emotion (but not the event.)

When writing memoir, an author will choose moments, in the form of scenes, to include. These scenes will then stand in for many moments in a life. After all, it is impossible to tell every story in a life, and it probably wouldn’t be that much fun to read them all. Instead, the scenes represent relationships, regular occurrences, themes, and more.

So, does that mean that a stand-in scene is authentically representative of all facts and truths that an author may hold? The author should work to be as factual and truthful, including to his or her opinions, while writing. If the author is being faithful to his or her memories and emotional truth (which could also be called a “universal truth”), then the scene should read authentically.

Here are some wise words from William Zinsserauthor of the classic guide On Writing Well, on NPR:

“(…) many of the chapters in my book are about small episodes that were not objectively "important" but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.”

If you are interested in taking the memoir writing workshop at Politics &Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., there are still spaces available for the March class. 

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