What is the Truth in Memoir | Can We Really Capture It? | Tune in to Find out

At the NAMW Telesummit Friday starting at 10 AM PDT, I get to talk with several fantastic authors and teachers. Their books have shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, and pushed me toward using language to carve out even deeper truths. The experts I get to hang out with are Jennifer Lauck, author of Blackbird and three other amazing and deep memoirs, including her last book Found. Dinty W. Moore’s collection of memoir essays Between Panic and Desire show us how we can weave small pieces into a memoir, while Robin Hemley’s Nola is another kind of weaving that examines the nature of memory and the sources of “truth” –whatever that is. The topic of the Telesummit is Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction, and also features a panel of young memoirists who couldn’t wait for people to die before they wrote about their lives! And the best news: it’s FREE to everyone. Just sign up at the link below.

Robin’s memoir asks: whose version of “truth” is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs?

Quotes from Nola:

How can one be objective about one’s family? How can one resist the urge to edit, to become the family spin doctor?

…There is no real past, it’s all a daydream is seems, or an endless series of clues and discoveries…

…everyone’s life is a kind of detective story, every clue of our forebears’ lives, every decision, missed opportunity…are part of the solution to our own existence.

To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir Writers to sign up. You will receive a link to the downloadable audio after the conference is over.

Robin will talk about “The Trouble with the Truth,” which is the troubling and challenging issue for all memoir and nonfiction writers. His introduction to the teleconference:

Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no single truth to our lives.  To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and we show different faces to different people.  The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing.  While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room transcript.  It’s not all about content.  There are aesthetic concerns as well.  Above all, you have to remember that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event.  They can only create a semblance of the event. 

We’re so lucky to be able to meet with people you normally have to pay hundreds of dollars to see, so join us for Free! See you there!

Memoir: Journey of Truth, Craft, and Commitment


Memoir writing is really hot news day today on the internet, which makes me very happy! Writing well is a journey, and we need our mentors, guides, and wise wizards to guide us.  Every day there is something new to learn, and wisdom bits from writers that spur us on our way.

Today in “Pubmission,” a blog on the writing life and publishing innovations, Dinty Moore, one of our guests at the National Association of Memoir Writers free all day conference, talks about the journey to become a writer and how publishing on the internet has changed the writer’s focus. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Brevity– a “journal of concise literary nonfiction”—which accepts works of up to 750 words.

Dinty guides students at the University of Ohio through the process of learning how to write, how to find their voice and learn to craft their work. He tells the interviewer at Pubmission Megan Lobsinger, one of his former students, that he urges his students to spend 90% of their time perfecting their writing and 10% on publishing concerns. Rightly so—the craft of writing is its own long term project, a lifelong learning that weaves tapestries of art, memory, creativity, and even frustration with the craft itself. It’s a process, a journey.

Dinty says, “I try to urge my writers to obsess about the craft of writing: how does the engine of narrative work? Writing is an art form, and thus some part of it remains a glorious mystery, but at the same time, there is much to be learned from trial and error, and much to be learned from careful consideration of the choices other writers have made.”

Having read two of Dinty Moore’s books—Between Panic and Desire, and The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, I want to tell everyone that we are in for a treat at the NAMW tele-conference. I look forward to speaking directly with Dinty on the subject of art, craft, memoir, and truth.

Please join me for a great day learning about how to write truth, whether it’s in memoir or fiction. When you sign up for the free Telesummit, you will receive an audio of the whole day’s presentations, which include Robin Hemley, Jennifer Lauck and a panel of young memoirists. Tell your friends!

 Sing up here to receive the day long conference and free audios! http://www.namw.org/teleseminars/national-association-of-memoir-writers-announces-guest-speakers-for-fall-2011-day-long-memoir-writing-teleconference

Truth or Lie–National Association of Memoir Writers Free Teleconference October 21


I’m so excited today! On October 21, I’m going to be hosting the Free Memoir Writing Telesummit over at The National Association of Memoir Writers. What an opportunity—to talk with these writers, teachers, authors, and bloggers who make such a difference in the creative nonfiction and literary world.

You need to be there! Go right over the National Association of Memoir Writers right now and SIGN UP. You will really enjoy being on the call live, but if you sign up, you also receive the downloadable audio as a resource to keep for yourself.

Take a look at this list: Dinty Moore, Robin Hemley, Jennifer Lauck, and a panel of young memoirists Elisabeth Eaves, Nicole Johns, Anna Mitchael, and our marketing expert Penny Sansevieri.

Think about it—how many times do you wonder if you have the “right” to put some of your personal stories in a book for others to read? How often do you put away your writing and just walk away—thinking it’s time to quit writing, time for a glass of wine and a movie instead.

I’m all for movies and a glass of wine, but memoir writers really do have a challenge—when we write and share our work, we effectively unzip ourselves and run around sort of naked!

What do other memoirists do to solve this? What are the rules of memoir writing—or is it called Creative Nonfiction. Stay tuned for some answers to your problems.

Why is this conference free?

Because I enjoy helping writers find their voice. I want to support memoirists and creative writers—you—on your  journey toward a book, essays, a blog—whatever kind of writing invites us to learn about who you are, how you solved life’s problems. How you loved, faced death, healed trauma, and learned about forgiveness. That’s why I started the National Association of Memoir Writers.

Be sure to put October 21st on your calendar. I hope to see you then.

–Linda Joy



The Memoir Police

Okay, the challenge is on, though somewhat tongue in cheek. Ben Yagoda, author of The History of
, has created a way to measure the “truthiness” in published memoirs. He’s interviewed about his “truth” chart in the Christian Science Monitor.  You remember—“truthiness” was the term coined back during the
James Frey fray with Oprah about truth and lie in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. You remember, the dressing down on Oprah’s couch.

Many memoirists put the virtual tail between their legs and got quite nervous about writing memoir. “How much do I have to fact check? Sure, I make up some of the dialogue as best as I can remember, but…”

Others wailed, “These are my memories. I can’t prove them!”

Several memoirists have been caught just before publication presenting entirely falsified accounts–Herman Rosenblat who made up the story of a young girl throwing apples over the fence at a concentration camp he was in, and meeting her again in America where they fell in love and got married. He had people crying and Oprah fooled too, and then it was found out to be false. He wanted to tell an inspiring story, he said. The trouble is, he called it a memoir, and it was not true.

Then there was Margaret Jones, whose memoir Love and Consequences told the gripping story of how she’d lived in an LA gang, but it was pulled before publication. It was all made up too. She had fooled everyone–her agent, the publisher, and left bitterness in her wake.

Then publishers got REALLY nervous. “How many liars are going to cost us money this time?” they cynically began to ask. We will tighten the reins and demand proof–fact-checking, background checking, you name it. Memoirists began to get assailed by journalists–whose stock in trade is to tell the absolute truth, making up nothing, about practices such as dialogue and creative scene making. However, their tradition has become somewhat cloudy with the “New Journalism” that uses fictional tools such as…gasp…dialogue and scenes to go inside the story. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood told a “true” story using fictional means, and other New Journalists have followed suit. Of course, going behind the scenes makes for a good story. Novelists know that, and so do memoirists. We all want to know the inside story, we are curious. Voyeurs, perhaps.

A debate is raging in the creative nonfiction world about whether it’s all right to compress time in a memoir, or to conflate characters. Really, there is a fierce debate between for instance Vivian Gornick, who was called on the carpet of “exact truth” a couple of years ago, and the fierce defenders of exactitude.

Mary Karr’s truthiness is measured in Ben Yagoda’s chart higher than say, Sarah Palin, but Rousseau and St. Augustine rank first as the most truthful. I guess it helps to be male and very dead.

So where does that leave us? The only thing we can do as memoirists is our best to write our memories as honestly as we can. Sure, it might help to research the exact name of the street you lived on when you were ten. After all, the memoir police might fine you for getting it wrong. But who cares?

I don’t care where you lived exactly, I care about who you were, what you dreamed about, and how you spent your days and nights. Were you happy or sad, and what made you that way? I don’t care if the color of the dress your mother wore on June 12, 1983 is “right” or not. Maybe you’ll find a photo that says it was green not red, the way you remember it. Uh-oh–you are a liar!

Not. So do your best to write your story. There’s a huge difference between those who set out to falsify their memoir and those who write their story the best they can, using their memory, their love of writing, and their determination to get the story on the page and invite the reader to stand in their shoes.

That is what our goal should be: to tell the best story we can while being honest with ourselves. Therein lies the rub. Writing with self-honesty is the real work!

For fun, go to the Nieman Storyboard, which is a great resource where you can read about the truth and lie debate, by the way, to see Yagoda’s chart of the truthiness of some well known memoirs.

It’s worth mentioning that you get points off for using dialogue in a memoir! So I guess all teachers of memoir are going to have to reverse their engines? I doubt it–a good story is what we are looking for and what we love.

Keep writing, and get your story on the page–memoir police be damned. (You can edit later.)

I’m going to go back to the black and white photos from my childhood and see if I can figure out the color of my mother’s dress.

Three Cups of Hysteria—er, Tea

All right, it’s a field day against memoirists. Again. Gee, I just hate to hear the word “memoir” in the same sentence as “liar.” In the neuro-connections, there’s no gap between accusation and the fine tuned, nuanced “reality” of the person accused.

I don’t know if Greg Mortensen lied the way that James Frey did; or did James Frey “lie” in fiction, and it was turned into memoir by the publisher?

Question: if you conflate time in your story, to keep the reader from being bored to tears, for instance, are you “lying?”

If you combine characters in your story for the purpose of good story telling, so you don’t bore your reader, are you “lying?”

If you exaggerate, are you lying? Most people would say yes, but this is not a problem with writing, this is a problem with ethics. Enter James Frey again, who admitted some exaggerations.
If you are accused of using money improperly in your charitable organization, how do you fight those accusations? Again, this is not about memoir writing, it is about your ethics.

How does the Red Cross, for instance, use its money—how much goes for what the contributor thinks they’re contributing to? How does that compare to Mortensen’s organization, and will anyone find out the real answers before or after they condemn him in the public court?

I’m not defending Greg Mortensen. I don’t know him, never have met him, but I did read his book a few years ago. If he’s doing even part of what he says he’s doing to help schools in the region, I admire that. I learned a great deal about Afghanistan and Pakistan from reading his book. Am I to understand that the villages, the mountains, the dress and the food are also inaccurate?

If you’re a memoirist—again, you’re hanging around with a louche crowd, at the very edges of respectable humanity. Pick up your pen and write about it.