Ever been tempted to write your own memoir? Or considered ghost writing for someone else? Best selling memoir author Andy Palmer has agreed to tell us how it's done! Read on to find out the difference between memoir and autobiography, truth versus fact and what to do about unreliable memories!
'I wrote an addiction memoir called 'Drowning' as part of a PhD in English. I looked at the agreement (Autobiographical Pact) between author and reader when a piece of writing is autobiographical and what you should and shouldn’t do as a writer of a memoir.
First off, what’s the difference between memoir and autobiography?
Memoir is autobiographical but isn’t an autobiography. An autobiography is the life story (up to the current point, of course) of a person written by themselves. A memoir is the story of something — addiction, abuse, a relationship, a journey, living through an event etc — that the author has been through and bases their narrative on. It’s a section of a life told as a story with a beginning, middle and end. An autobiography will cover everything but without a narrative arc, whereas a memoir should have an arc that can be communicated in the same way as the plot or blurb of a novel.
What is the Autobiographical Pact and how does truth versus fact come into it?
Philip Lejeune wrote an essay called The Autobiographical Pact where he outlines what
an autobiography is, where memoir comes
into it, and the agreement between author
and reader that says that what is included
in an autobiography is true and not fiction (invented). The reason this matters is
because readers don’t like to be duped,
see James Frey on Oprah for example. So, essentially, when writing a memoir what
you say happened should have happened.
Now, there are areas where a little
manipulation is required and aspects
where a little invention is permitted in order
for the narrative to work as a memoir and
read well for a reader. You have to draw
your own line in the sand, though, as to
how far you feel you can go and still call
what you’ve written true.
I personally think it’s okay to tell your story the way you want to in a memoir and you can omit things you like and in certain circumstances — outlined below — add things. Is this dishonest? I don’t think so as long as you are careful.
Memoir = memories, and memories are unreliable. Psychologists say that each time you recall a memory you change it in light of the circumstances you’re in and the emotions you’re feeling. Also, we get things wrong all the time. We may claim, hand on heart, that we met someone at a particular time and place for the first time but they remember it differently. Is someone lying and the other telling the truth? No, they’re both being honest. Facts are facts. What really happened, happened. Memoir will include facts (when remembered correctly) and also impressions (how you felt things happened). Biography, for example, relies more heavily on researched facts to tell the story of another person.
So what can and can’t be changed for a memoir?
You absolutely can’t invent situations and events to fit your narrative and the impression you want to give your readers. Again, see James Frey. What you can do, though, is a careful reordering of events to help with the narrative arc, but treading carefully so as
not to manufacture cause and effect. You can also omit events and should omit events as you’ll probably have too many to include and a lot won’t be interesting or relevant. You can combine events. For example, in my memoir I go on a stag trip to Blackpool. In real life I went on two stag trips to Blackpool that went very similarly, so I combined them into one. Why? Because it would be boring and repetitive for a reader to read two accounts of a similar thing. Memoir is a lot to do with selection, whether that’s people, events, emotions, or aspects of yourself, you’re always choosing what to include and what not to. Through that process you’re creating the arc of your narrative.
Or when they’re in your memoir, characters. Again, you can’t invent them or you’ve stumbled into fiction writing. However, you don’t have to include everyone and you shouldn’t as it won’t help your story. In my memoir, I combined some people into one character for simplicity and so as not to confuse the reader. I had three friends who I knew separately but who I did the same things with but at different points in my teens, so I
combined them to have a consistent friend through the period. Also, I changed some names. Sometimes to protect identities but most often for practical reasons. I’m called Andy and in the latter stages of my memoir I am working in a Youth Hostel with two other guys. Guess what, they were both called Andy in real life. So I changed their names otherwise the scenes with all three of us would have been confusing.
Aspects of yourself
Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t change my character or lie about who I was, but I chose to concentrate my memoir on my addiction to alcohol and drugs. This meant taking out some other issues that I struggled with. This was to keep the focus of the narrative on the areas that I wanted to write about. Things can get muddy otherwise and lose their clarity and you may veer into autobiography if you try to include everything. It was important for me to keep my memoir dramatic and pacy to pull the reader along, like a novel, as I enjoy reading memoirs like that myself.
Like I said above in ‘events’, you can change or alter the timeline. Being careful not to alter the impression of cause and effect you can make it
look like something happened not long after some other event by butting them up together and missing out whatever happened in-between. This omission is often to keep the narrative moving and interesting. There are
times in life that are uneventful and would slow the drama and narrative-drive down if you wrote scenes about them. Instead, miss out the details and pop a line in such as, ‘a few months later…’ You have to keep your reader interested, so keep the narrative moving.
No-one remembers all their past conversations accurately, especially not an addict like me. Even the ones you do remember won’t be accurate. However, you may
have the sense of what both parties spoke about and understood from the conversation. You may know, in a round about way, what the conversation covered and the conclusion of it. So, you can approximate what was said and shape it into readable dialogue. Don’t put words into people’s mouths that they wouldn’t have said, or change what someone said in real life to something you want them to have said in order to serve your purpose. Create dialogue that gives the accurate sense of what was said, even if you don’t use the same words.
So, you can tell the truth in memoir while also missing out things, changing things (within reason) and misremembering. No one expects absolute fact and, frankly, that would most likely be boring to read. Memoirs are portraits of people going through changes. It’s the person, their journey, and their growth that’s interesting, not if it’ll stand up in a court of law. But, caveat, don’t make stuff up unless you want a backlash. Part of the joy of reading memoir is that it’s a true story!'