There are certain stories my gut wants me to put down on paper. Like the one about the August when my husband I hastily packed up a U-Haul and drove 800 miles across Texas on the off chance of a better future. So much changed for me after that move, change embodied in the parched land of the simple people who dwelt in the Chihuahan Desert.
And another about how after Mother died I desperately clung to whatever artifacts of hers I could, from her Bible to that pair of gaudy glasses she wore in the late eighties. Those glasses sat on my desk for months while I pondered, Why did Mother keep them? Why couldn’t I let them go?
As I began writing memoirs, I realized that memoir presents an ongoing challenge: Telling the truth. Sometimes my sources of information were unreliable like my own fallible, subjective memory. Sometimes my sources were dead, and the dead didn’t always leave behind letters or journals for me to peruse. While I endeavored to tell the stories as accurately and as artfully as I could, sometimes a reasoned guess was all I had.
But along with vampires and zombies, memoir is a genre du jour. People love to read about the lives, struggles, and joys of other real people especially when they’re told in a true storyteller fashion. So in varying degrees, I employed fiction writers’ storytelling techniques, fictionalizing or enhancing a story to fill in a gap, create more dynamic characters, or develop a well-rounded story that would better situate the reader in my personal life. Occasionally, I merged multiple actual characters to simplify the storyline. I invented characters or shortened the timeline of actual events.
When I did reconstruct, I signaled the reader using statements such as “in my head, it happened like this.” Although I intentionally made these enhancements, they weren’t done with malice, ill-intent, or disrespect for the past or for the dead.
I quickly learned that getting the facts down was relatively easy, but everything in between—the potential ripple effects afterward—presented real hazards. I often faced the same questions and dilemmas that many memoirists face. How do I write what I saw, heard, and felt while avoiding shedding a negative light on someone I love? Do I need to write that story? Why? Must I share that story? If so, am I willing to face the consequences, good, bad, or indifferent, inherent in sharing it?
But I’m a writer. It’s what I do and how I understand my experiences and the world around me. So I persevered, taking solace in knowing I wasn’t alone in walking along this tricky line between my truth and other people’s interpretation and criticism of it. I also realized I couldn’t control what others think or how they saw an event in comparison to the way I saw or interpreted it.
As the old saying goes, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”