When executed correctly, the act of memoir is terrifying. Due to the nature of the craft itself, the memoirist has much less to decide in terms of what she writes, which means there is arguably a great deal more focus on how it gets written. Bestowing the classification of ‘memoir’ upon one’s writing is making a promise to the reader that the story being told is not only true, but honest. A contract is drawn between author and audience with the understanding that the words on the pages in front of them are coming from a place of candidness, and that the thoughts expressed by the speaker are real and from the mind of the speaker herself. This contract is important. It could—and quite frankly, should—be argued that the making or breaking of this contract will determine the success of the memoir altogether. The fearless memoirist must be willing to break open the topical events described in a narrative and pull from their makeup a deep truth which indicates she is willing to give everything she has to both the work and her audience. Surface-level information will paint the picture in the reader’s mind, but in order to get that picture moving to create a story, the details of that image must be brought out of the proverbial closet and discussed at length.
I wanted my first memoir to be about the year of my life during which I found myself navigating the complications of being a mentally ill person dating someone who was also mentally ill (and arguably more so). There is a folder on my Google Drive containing no fewer than twenty-three files with anywhere between a single line and three pages worth of panic at the idea of beginning to write with the honesty of a memoirist. None of the material was usable—the majority of those documents are just the words “I’m an awful writer I cannot write I am so bad at writing,” over and over again. Looking back, though, I don’t think it was ever the craft part of the writing that I was afraid of. I’ve been receiving positive commentary on my writing since elementary school, and my confidence in my own abilities as a writer has only grown over time with my education. The home of my fear was in the possibility of being unable to tell the truth about what happened to and between me and my partner. I wanted to be real, raw, unfiltered. I wanted to tell the story of the blinding madness woven into our arguments and the messy euphoria of our kinship. But the distortion and color of those memories changed on a daily basis, and I began to feel as though I was making them up altogether. This made me nervous. I didn’t want to make a sob story out of myself. I didn’t want to create a villain of a struggling civilian.
There is something of a difference between being honest in memoir and putting the truth on the page. First, it is not always possible for a memoirist to have access to the ultimate truth of the story she is telling. Most people are familiar with the adage of there existing ‘my’ truth, ‘your’ truth, and the ‘real’ truth somewhere in between. I find this phrase to be a massive understatement; when a writer selects a particular word to describe an event, another word goes unchosen. It is safe to assume, then, that there will always be something left out of a story’s recount. We can trust that every memoir ever written is omitting something, and therefore cannot be telling the full (‘real’) truth.
However, being unable to tell the ‘real’ truth should not default to a status of dishonesty. A memoirist’s job is to recount her own past experiences, which means that the greater responsibility here is not to give every detail of every second of the story being told from the most objective perspective possible. Rather, it is to be as open and honest as possible about the experience from one’s own perspective. This responsibility, while not as easily tested, is asking a great deal from the writer. Memoirist Mary Karr acknowledges this pain honestly in her best-selling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Karr insists that “in some ways, writing a memoir is like knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.” She explains that a memoirist who can only present herself as flawlessly omniscient within a story is going to write something that is not only boring and flat, but dishonest and unhealthy. The flaws of the writer must be revealed and acknowledged alongside those of the others in the story being told, and the author’s insight must confront them directly, or it will be impossible to achieve that ever-so important tone of honesty and vulnerability which is needed to build a relationship with the reader.
This is what honesty in memoir is about—finding the ugliest, most naked parts of one’s own humanity and willfully showing those parts off to anyone who will listen. How we decide to go about that display is left to the individual writer herself, but what is truly important is the ability to reject composition and façade. Memoir is about writing the truth, above all else, in confession of humanity.
When writing an account of a true story, what do you feel is more important, representing your own perspective with a heavy concentration on that single perspective, or giving voice to the other parties involved as accurately as possible? Why?