Truth, Lie, Essential Truth—How to Figure out the Ethics of Your Memoir



When we talk about “essential Truth” what do we mean as memoirists? How much room do we have to create scenes, dialogue, and “characters” from the flotsam of memories? What are the “rules” of memoir anyway?

Memoirists are always on the firing line it seems, in danger of being accused of making things up or “fictionalizing,” and there is a whole history that many of you have heard about that make memoirists leery of even writing their memoir.  There’s the whole James Frey and Oprah controversy, and several cases of false memoirs that hit the public hard.

Everyone needs to understand that when people write a “false memoir” they know they are faking the story. They aren’t “accidently” writing something that another family member might disagree with. The fake memoir people set out to write something that will gain notoriety and buzz, and will sell books. It’s too bad, but only a few people seem to take this route. Yet as you know if you are a memoirist, their actions appear to tarnish the reputation of all memoirists.

While the media seems to enjoy targeting memoirists of playing fast and loose with the truth, the people I meet with and coach are the opposite—they are so worried about being “correct” with their memories that they find it hard to write at all.

Memoir is a genre that uses the tools of fiction—writing scenes and creating dialogue to craft a story that brings people into the world of the memoirist, and the memoirist must find the elements of that story in their memory banks, and/or do research to share the truth of their experience—which brings up the question: how valid is my memoir as my own experience? Will I be sued or accused of lying when others don’t agree with my story?

I’m looking forward to a discussion this Friday with Betsy Graziani Fasbinder during our NAMW Member Teleseminar about truth telling, fictionalizing, and essential truth for memoirists. And we are going to delve into the question: when is it best to write your life story as fiction—to stand behind what I call the “fictional wall.”

We are going to talk about these topics, and more. Be sure to tune in!

  • Avoiding the big memoir no-no: Using fictional writing techniques as differentiated from “fictionalizing.”
  • Is there a difference between “fact” and “truth” in memoir? When does using fictional elements go too far? When is alteration appropriate and ethical?
  • Do you want—or need—to stand behind the “fictional wall” with your memoir story?  (Really, it’s okay if you do.)  
  • Becoming the best kind of thief: Robbing your real life experiences to inform or inspire your fiction.
  • Avoiding the Oprah Confessional as well as law suits:  Learning from the errors of others.
  • What am I writing here?  Examining your goals for writing your story as memoir or fiction. 



  1. Linda, your post about “essential Truth” in memoir set me to thinking about how we define “truth” in the first place. Recently a statement made by my husband some years ago has been coming into my mind. Someone else in a Sunday morning discussion group said, “we are each seeking our own version of the truth.” The next thing said was from my husband: “We are each seeking our own grain of truth.”

    Version. The truth. Grain. Truth. To this day I have cherished the fact that he spoke up and said that. His doing so has contributed to the charm he holds for me.

  2. As you say, we are each seeking our own version of the truth. What is the truth? Memoir authors rely on their memories of characters and events, but these can be fragile, distorted, or coated with another truth. Painful memories are especially vulnerable – our mind may make up for the blanks or exaggerate incidents or invent ones that over time come to be the truth. On the other hand, the minute a writer changes someone’s name and identifying traits, it’s no longer the truth. Omission is a way to avoid the truth. Sex plays a big part in most people’s lives but few writers want to open up about their sex lives. Parent bashing is a popular topic but how much is truth and how much is subjective or invented? In my memoir about my Anglo-Mexican childhood, I found it especially challenging to write about mental/emotional abuse – it’s not tangible like physical abuse. I’d have to be a Stephen King to write it and then it risked coming out as fictionalized.

    For me, the essential Truth is what really happened and if the writer has to resort to fiction to convey this (as in dialogue, a scene) so be it.

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