Let’s admit it: Anyone who writes memoir does a song and dance with the facts. Even if we’re determined to be completely faithful and only include the verifiable when it comes to event, chronology, and dialogue, our memories are fallible and sometimes they’re the only thing we can rely on to say “This is the truth.”
To me, this conversation about what to do with the facts starts to become tiresome, but also necessary. When it comes to writing memoir, what are we willing to do with the facts of our lives? In addition, what should we not allow ourselves to do?
If you happen to believe that everything should be verifiable in a memoir, then here’s a list of transgressions I’ve committed. I confess that I’ve created dialogue for characters, giving them things to say that I can’t be sure they said at that exact time. I’ve also conveniently provided them with props and details; I’ve never given anyone something they never had, but perhaps I have them use a prop, or wear a certain hat, or make a certain gesture at a time that I feel will help dramatize the moment I’m putting on the page. Truth be told, I’ve also tinkered with chronology for the benefit of the narrative arc. I’ve collapsed or telescoped time; I’ve rearranged sequence. I’m a storyteller; this is what I do.
Consider this scene in my memoir, From Our House. I’m eleven years old, and during the weeks that summer, I’m living alone with my father on our farm while my mother is an hour away in Charleston at Eastern Illinois University, finishing her bachelor’s degree. In this scene, I’m helping my father work on a piece of machinery (my farther has no hands because of a farming accident; he wears prostheses—his hooks—and, consequently, he often needs me to do the work he can no longer manage). On this day, my wrench slips and I scrape my hand. My father says, “You want me to make you a sugar tit?” I have to admit that I’m not sure that he really said that at that exact moment, but it’s true that he said it to me often when I was growing up and he wanted to call attention to the fact that I needed to toughen up. While writing this scene, the pressure between us built up, and for the sake of the narrative momentum, I wanted him to say something that would precipitate the action, and since this was something he often said, I decided to use that line of dialogue to drive the engine of this scene in which I try to walk away from him (true), he takes off his belt to whip me (true), I catch the belt in my hand and tug it away from him. This last action didn’t happen during the sequence of events that I’m dramatizing. It happened during another moment sometime in the future. It lodged in my memory, the feeling of taking that belt from my father, and I decided to use it out of sequence to better motivate the ensuing action. My father looks at me, first with surprise, and then with a growing anger. He steps toward me, and I run down our lane. He chases after me, but he can’t keep up, and soon I find myself alone at the end of the lane, knowing eventually I’ll have to go back. It’s that moment of wanting to escape and knowing I never really can that holds the complicated feelings of a boy who simultaneously loved and feared his father. That was the story of this time of our lives; this scene is meant to take me deep into that feeling, and I found that inventing that line of dialogue and rearranging the chronology to provide clearer emotional triggers for the action became necessary for taking me to the complicated truth of what it was to be my father’s son.
But before you think me unethical, let me say that there were other times in the writing of this memoir when I found myself giving my father lines of dialogue that were unfair to him, lines that came from my negative feelings toward him, lines that portrayed him in a singular dimension of anger and cruelty that took me over the ethical line of nonfiction and into the realm of fiction. Those were the moments when I had to step back and rewrite to make sure I was portraying my father accurately. We all know where these ethical lines are when we write memoir, and we know that funny feeling inside us when we cross them. We have to pay attention to those feelings; we have to make sure we haven’t played loose with the facts for our own purposes rather than for the sake of the truthful things we can express about the mysteries and complexities of our experiences.
And what of those facts that are ordinary and on the surface uninteresting? How can we put them to use in our memoirs? In the next section following the scene I’ve just described, I write about how I took care of my father that summer, and how on Fridays we stopped work early and got cleaned up, so we could drive to Charleston to pick up my mother. I write about how I brought a basin of water to my father’s bedroom and washed his naked body. When I was finished, “I rolled fresh white cotton arm socks over his stumps and safety-pinned them to his T-shirt sleeves. I helped him slip his arms into the holsters of his hooks and then settle the canvas straps of the harness across his back.” These ordinary details—ordinary for us, anyway—stand alone in this quiet place after the drama of the preceding scene. The description of me washing and dressing my father show the complicated truth of love’s persistence in the face of cruelty. I have no need to rearrange or invent. The facts do the work. They take me to this truth: “How could I not love him, then, so great was his need.”
So the truth? Sometimes the facts can serve us well, but sometimes a few minor adjustments can serve the story better and more forcefully lead us to what we’ve come to the page to explore, to interrogate, to dramatize, as we finally know in our heart of hearts a deeper layer of truth rising up through the surfaces of our lives.