In the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.
On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.
A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds
This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.
He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”
Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”
Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.