In life writing and memoir circles, Truth is always one of the hottest topics of discussion. In general, nearly everyone recognized that no two people see things quite the same way. The important thing is to write the story the way you remember it, to be true to your self. If people disagree, so be it. Suggest they write their own story.
Many details in your stories are a matter of personal memory, and there is no way to go back and check, so it’s your word against somebody else’s. There is no way to resolve such disputes, so write what you recall and let it go at that. However, there are a few instances involving verifiable facts where your memory can trip you up.
For example, I recently read a draft of a friend’s memoir. It included several paragraphs about Toastmasters. As it happens, I was an ardent member of Toastmasters for many years. I immediately noticed several discrepancies in the terminology used by my friend, whose involvement was relatively fleeting.
I just finished reading a book that mentioned Elmwood, a noteworthy historic house in Cambridge, Mass. I decided to locate Elmwood on Google Maps, and found it described in Wikipedia. The author stated that it was a nineteenth century residence. As I learned, it was built in 1767, a century earlier.
I mention these seemingly petty points to show that there are some types of detail that people can check and call you on, and sooner or later somebody probably will. Fortunately these two examples are not the type of detail that will do any damage. For example, referring to Toastmaster evaluations as critiques will simply make it obvious to insiders that you weren’t seriously involved with the program, and in a way that error conveys a truth that’s far from damning. Misrepresenting the age of a building you admired from afar as a child – if that’s what you always understood or thought, hardly a problem.
Neither of these examples involve the sort of details authors would think to check. Other types it could matter more. For example, getting the dates of a ancestor or current relative’s birth or death wrong could set off all sorts of controversies among family genealogists in future years, and could cause friction sooner. Names matter (unless they have been deliberately changed). That’s the sort of thing you can check.
The best way to avoid errors like this in your final story is to check obvious facts yourself (that’s so much easier to do today than it would have been even ten years ago). Then follow my friend’s example and have a few people read final drafts to catch typos, find minor errors spell- and grammar-check overlook, and find flukes like this that you could never notice.
Write now: write about some of the landmarks you grew up noticing, including what you remember about their history. Then check them out to see if you find any surprises. You may be intrigued to learn all sorts of new information about them in the process and perhaps that will influence your story in some way. At least you’ll know your details are accurate. Another option is to pull out some old stories and do a little fact checking on ages, dates and similar details.
Photo credit: Matt Brown