I’ve written in the past about my overall process for writing memoirs: as a memoir ghostwriter, I do this for a living and love diving into people’s stories with them.
One of my favorite parts of the memoir writing process is actually the beginning, where we dive into the pool of someone’s vast memories and start to swim around, looking for meaning.
(Also, this is about to be a series of blog posts about memoir writing, so if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, be sure to follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and subscribe to my newsletter for regular blog updates!)
Getting on the Case as a Memoir Detective
Getting as close to objectivity as possible should be the goal of your memoir writing process. It’s the name of the game… and genre (non-fiction).
You’ll need to pick up your magnifying glass and binoculars and start searching through your life far and wide to begin laying the groundwork for a nuanced, honest memoir.
Begin by asking yourself the simplest question you can to kickstart your investigation:
“Why do I want to tell my life story?”
That’s the lens that you’ll need to examine all of your evidence through. Your “why” or your purpose can help you hone into the “what,” or what part of your life should be the focus in your memoir.
As you reflect on the major events of your life, lean on all the resources around you. Include your family and friends in this process. Ask them about their perspective of shared memories. Obsess over old family albums, sift through archived text messages, dig through diaries, and cook old recipes.
Doing all of this is going to help you write your story with detail, honesty, and objectivity. You do not want to write from your memory alone. We’re not nearly as good at remembering things as we’d like to think.
When Your Memory Lies to You
In a 2009 study, psychologists discovered that certain factors, such as how we felt during a particular event, have a direct impact on the accuracy of our recollections of that event.
Participants in the study were surveyed on their emotional recall of life events, which they labeled either positive or negative. It was found that the emotional intensity participants remembered feeling during negative events was significantly more likely to fade over time (51% of negative events) versus that emotional intensity remaining fixed (38% of negative events).
In simpler terms, our brains edit how we remember feeling during major life events as time moves on. It’s how many people process trauma and remain hopeful about their future, and why the adage “time heals all wounds” actually takes hold.
3 Ways to Uncover the Truth About Your Life for Your Memoir
Discovering the truth about your life requires some bravery and perseverance, so don’t give up before you get to your truth.
Here are three of my top suggestions for tracking down the truth:
- Seek out primary sources. Primary source documents like old social media posts, diary entries, VHS tapes or other recordings can help you capture a memory in amber. If you were a researcher,
- Journal on old memories. Write about sights, smells, and events in your past. Pick something specific, like the day you went apple picking with your mother in endless orchards.
- Compare notes with friends and family. For shared memories, it’s helpful to see what others remember, too. By comparing notes, you’ll be able to get closer to a more unbiased reality. Ask for what specific details others remember, too: these forgotten pieces can help you paint an even more fleshed out picture of past events.
When in doubt, follow your curiosity and ask as many questions as you can.
My Approach to Finding an Unbiased Truth in Memoir
In my own writing, I often prefer fiction to help me unpack a challenging reality. That way, I can always shrug and say, “it’s all made-up” even as I’m exploring a kernel of truth.
In my personal essays I’ve written, however, I try to get as close to truth as I can. Dialogue sometimes feels smudged in my mind’s eye, as I don’t have the best memory for what people said. So, I’ll try to write a smarter, punchier version of what I remember, and hope that my subject doesn’t mind that I’ve probably made them 20% wittier in the process.
For my memoir ghostwriting clients, I help them walk the line between reality and story. After all, a memoir is a story, not a play-by-play of every single day of your life. Sometimes, things need to be combined or coalesced to create a more cohesive memoir. But even the adjustments must feel authentic: the reader can tell if something feels fake.
At the end of the day, truth can be an ugly, hard thing. Give your best efforts to search for it, though: because finding your truth will pay off in dividends.
Next in Your Memoir Writing Journey
In my next post about how to write a memoir, I’ll continue to guide you down the path of your mind’s eye, and we’ll talk about the cast of characters in your life.
Good luck with your memoir writing endeavors, detectives 🙂