In her excellent blog post of just a few weeks ago (28 September 2019), my United Ghostwriters colleague, Caro Handley, wrote about the value of telling ‘the whole truth’ in your memoir – i.e. including in your account of your life the stories of the times when you made mistakes, hurt others or made decisions you later regretted. Caro is a vastly experienced ghostwriter with more than 50 bestselling books under her belt and has worked with a number of very high-profile clients from all walks of life, and her point about honesty being the best way, not only to engage your readers but also to make peace with your experiences, is a very valid one.
But, particularly if you are not a famous person, are there times when it’s ok, or even wise, to tailor the truth in an account of your life? To omit certain episodes, or leave out significant people or facts; to quickly gloss over certain experiences or circumstances, or even change certain details or chronologies? Does a memoir by definition have to be an exhaustive and unflinching recitation of everything that has happened to you? (I’ll be talking here in the main about ‘non-celeb’ memoirs, as opposed to those by high-profile public figures, where a reader’s expectations in terms of the level of disclosure may be very different.)
There have been many books written on the subject of memoir and memoir writing, and this blog isn’t of course the right place to go into all the different issues explored in these books. However, in very simple terms, one important distinction to bear in mind is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Traditionally, it’s in an autobiography that the author sets out to provide as factually accurate and inclusive an account of his or her life as possible, while in a memoir, there is inherently more licence for creativity in the telling of your story. Any story told by the person who experienced it tends to be highly subjective of course, but it could be said that the autobiography aims for greater objectivity in presenting all the factual details (or as many as feasible), while a memoir can put more emphasis on the emotional and perhaps impressionistic elements of the author’s experiences. A memoir is really above all an opportunity for you to tell your story as you lived and assimilated it.
Some of the clients I’ve worked with have found this distinction to be a very freeing one. No longer shackled to the task of providing every detail or 100 per cent accuracy in terms of the timeframe and chronology of their story, they are more able to focus on, say, how their inner lives have evolved as a result of the things that have happened to them, or to explore specific themes or issues they feel are particularly significant.
Sometimes in a memoir, it can be helpful to both the reader and the writer to pare down certain elements of the story. One of my clients wanted her book to focus on her relationship with her younger sister, who had fallen into alcohol and heroin addiction as a way of coping with the abuse they had both suffered at the hands of their father from early childhood; these addictions had, very tragically, led to the sister’s death at the age of 35. This client had other siblings – three older brothers, who had left home long before the girls reached puberty. For the purposes of the story, and to protect other family members, she decided that she would not refer to her brothers (or even to their existence) in the book. This was not a reflection on the brothers or anything they had or had not done – it was just a way of keeping the narrative as compact and powerful as possible, so that the author could recreate and convey the intense nature of the bond between her sister and herself, and focus fully on the trajectory of her sister’s tragically short life.
Another client, in a memoir about his life-long battle with mental health, chose not to include all the details of the bullying he suffered at the hands of an employer, just prior to his first major episode of clinical depression and subsequent hospitalisation. He did not want to pick over old wounds inflicted by a sadistic superior, nor did he want to get himself involved in potential allegations of libel by this individual, who would unfailingly have tried to take legal action if his name had been mentioned in a book by my client, even if the details recorded about him were entirely fair and accurate. There was a certain satisfaction for my client in knowing that this guy would buy the book with the express purpose of seeking out any references to himself, only to discover that he hadn’t been deemed worth a mention!
These decisions, above, are very personal ones which could only have been taken by the individual clients in question – and so far anyway, each continues to feel they have made the right call. But in using these illustrations, my point is that these are valid, and feasible, choices. In an age when self-disclosure seems to have become the new religion, and where social media especially encourages us to reveal the most intimate – and sometimes the smallest and most excruciatingly mundane – aspects of our lives, it is important to remember that you can still have a level of control over what you disclose.
I am certainly not however advocating that anyone should attempt to lie or to otherwise deliberately misrepresent the truth in their memoir. After all, as a good friend who was for many years a very successful editor at Faber & Faber once told me, the one thing which distinguishes a good memoir from a poor one is the level of honesty the author has been willing to embrace and able to achieve. And there have been some very high-profile cautionary tales of ‘memoirs’ which have been published to great popular and critical acclaim, only to have later been revealed to have been complete fabrications. The public fall-out for the authors was not pretty!
But the bottom line is that your story is your property and that you have the right to withhold certain aspects of it if you feel is the right thing to do – as long as you are entirely honest with yourself about your motives for doing so. Once more, this is where the assistance of a good ghostwriter can be invaluable, as someone who will help you clarify what you don’t want to say (and why) – which can sometimes be every bit as important as what you do want to say .