Memoir–how much truth is the truth?

Salvadore Dali: The Persistence of Memory

Every reader contemplates this; every memoir writer agonizes about this. We understand the research on how flawed memories can be, and we have to balance this out with our worry about accurate representation. We want it. We go hunting for it. We put ourselves into trances, or pick up writing exercises to prod what’s stuck in our grey matter so that it burbles again to the surface.

Is what we say accurate? If we’re twenty years from the events? If we’re fifty years from the events? More? We surely hope so. Even if the other people in the scene are dead, we hope and pray we are not distorting events as we recall them.

Recently on twitter, a thread appeared where (mostly) readers discussed just this, and their consensus seemed to be that memoirists could never reproduce dialogue accurately and should therefore leave it out.

I don’t concur. Those who’ve read my memoir “No More Hurt” can see that I want to take the reader into my experience as I lived in. How else to impart the true flavour? In my case, as an autistic person, I have an excellent memory for dialogue–it’s one of those things that sticks. Yet I’m sure people would argue that some of the dialogue isn’t accurate, because I still took what resonated with me and others took what resonated with them away and store it into memory. Picking and choosing illuminating bits even in the moment.

Sometimes writers include notes about what they’ve done in regards to these matters, and one of these I’ve recently seen is writer Maryann Aita’s frontispiece to “Little Astronaut: A Memoir in Essays,” shared with her permission.

A Note on Truth, by Maryann Aita

“Most names in this book have been changed, and some identifying details adjusted to protect people’s privacy as much as I can without losing story. Dialogue, dates, and the narrative arc of events in my life may not be precise because I am not a computer. These are pieced together from my memories, which may be different than the memories of my family members. But memory is all we have to build the foundation of ourselves; it is possible for multiple truths to exist at once. I’ve done my best to capture my emotional truth, which may mean I remember rain on a sunny day. A weather report could prove me wrong, but if I was crying, isn’t it still a kind of truth?

“Since writing this book, I’ve learned my sister remembers being diagnosed with anorexia at 13. She also told me she was probably restricting her eating before then. I, however, remember learning about it when I was eight, and she was 15. Memory is deeply fallible. My memory is probably inaccurate. Her memory could be as well. Every time we recall something, even in our own minds, it changes. The facts of memory are not equivalent to truth. I’ve decided to keep these details as I remember because they are my truth.”