Tell the Truth. Or Not?

You want to write your life’s story. Things happened to you that are raw, gritty, painful. You still hurt when you think of them. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you feel like running into the street and screaming at the top of your lungs about the injustices done to you.

The problem that keeps you from writing? The relatives or acquaintances that committed the offenses are still alive.

Do you tell the truth, in all its gory detail? Or do you hold back?

If anyone is alive that might have been a part of the story, you might want to think twice about how you report what happened. For one, your interpretation is only just that: your interpretation. Someone else might recall the incidents differently. They may take offense to your version and you may find yourself in a court of law.

Yet without the details, your story is not as poignant. The pain, the suffering does not stand out as anything unique. The antagonists are not as evil. The validation that you seek is not justified. What do you do?

Consider writing your story as creative non-fiction. Change not just names, but also characteristics. Give each character appearances that are not even closely related to the real people. Give them different patterns of speech and mannerisms. Invent dialogue that might have happened, that carries the meat of the pain, yet without identifiers that indicate exactly who the speaker is.

Memoir written purely from fact can be flat, without substance. It becomes a recitation of places, things, people. Read some contemporary biography and you will quickly see how unemotional the telling is. The writers are great researchers who have pulled quotes from existing documents, but the telling lacks flare.

Emotions are not felt. Characters are not three-dimensional, living, breathing, error-prone beings.

When you choose to fictionalize the story, you free yourself from a recitation of the facts and you are now able to round out your characters. They become realistic people who live your story.

For this prompt, choose a major event that has impacted you in an emotional way. Write it using only fact. Do not embellish. Do not include dialogue that you do not recall, word for word. No descriptions unless you actually co remember Aunt Alice’s yellow tulle dress and Uncle Joe’s scruffy black shoes. When finished, reread it. What do you think? How would someone else react when reading it? If you find it boring, then so would an impartial reader.

Now take the same scene. Change Alice and Joe to Steve and Petra. Dress them in jeans, t-shirts and tennies. Change the setting from an old rambling Victorian-style house to a modern one-story ranch. Move from Minnesota to Wisconsin. From the country to the suburbs of a large city.

Put the characters in action. Replay the argument that was the pivotal point of the event, but change the trigger to something equal in intensity, but changed somewhat. Write dialogue that is logical. Include emotional charge. If, in real life, the protagonist fights back, in this version, have the same thing happen. Have the outcome be close to the actual event.

Go back and reread this version. Which is more compelling? Which invites you to read on?

This is the choice you have to make when writing memoir. To tell the truth and nothing but the truth, as accurately as possible, or to change things around and embellish.

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