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Katerina Bryant explores what it means to tell the truth in memoir.
Renowned nonfiction writer David Sedaris has said in an interview with the New York Times, that, ‘Memoir is the last place you'd expect to find the truth’. Sedaris is not alone in his thoughts on the slippery line between fiction and nonfiction. Writer John D’Agata once said in response to a fact checker’s concerns about his somewhat light interpretation of a nonfiction writer’s responsibilities: ‘I’m not running for public office. I’m trying to write something that’s interesting to read.’
But despite Sedaris and D’Agata’s thoughts, in my experience, most nonfiction writers want to get as close to truth as possible. In an interview, Joan Didion once said, 'For me, writing is a kind of exploration. I’m not sure that I have a social conscience. It's more an insistence that people tell the truth.’ But truth can be a somewhat slippery terrain, even when you’re equipped with the best intentions. In a practical sense, how can we make sure what we write resembles truth? After five years of trial and error, here are some tips I’ve learnt along the way.
Talk, talk and talk some more
Family, friends and the average bystander are there for you to ruthlessly exploit for their thoughts and interpretations of events. Here, it’s not about changing your opinion on what happened but rather taking into account other perspectives to account for your own biases.
For example, I wrote a piece about Christmas a while ago and in an early draft I described a family ‘tradition’, something which I remember as a kid finding long and painful year in, year out. I asked Mum to read it through for inaccuracies and she told me it wasn’t actually a tradition, but something that had only occurred once. Once. My kid brain had warped an uncomfortable moment into an uncomfortable odyssey. While this detail may not have changed the emotional truth of the essay, I would have felt deeply uncomfortable if after publication I had learnt that I had gotten it wrong.
But fact-checking with friends and family can be difficult terrain. Be clear: You want feedback on your portrayal of events – not your writing style. You can approach this in a number of ways. Talking through the event with a notepad handy is good. But if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of the writing but are worried that the person you’re talking to will take issue with parts of it, read it aloud to them. This way, you can control the conversation and pause in sections your memory is a little fuzzy on. Added bonus: they won’t have a copy of the essay to pick apart.
Phone (or bring) a friend
If your nonfic style of choice is not delving into memories past but immersing yourself in a new place, then prepare for your own faulty memory by bringing a friend. A few months ago, I travelled to the Northern Territory for book research and I brought my partner along with me. His perceptions of place not only extended my own, but he actively documented the experience. He took photos, wrote notes and helped me decipher Google Maps.
Perhaps most importantly, he read the final product to let me know if I nailed the sense of place (or… not). Let’s just say at the end of the day, when you’re spending hours researching which tree you saw, it’s very nice to have someone affirm that yes, it was a yucca.
Don’t forget a camera
Nonfiction is a hoarder’s best friend. Or maybe hoarding is a writer’s best friend. Either way, keep your photos, journal entries, tweets, iPhone notes and interview recordings close. Back them up, whether through the cloud or the age-old method of emailing them to yourself. Memoir is made by the detail – the more specific you can get, the better – and these resources will help you get there.
Whether you’re on an adventure you plan to write about or moving through everyday life, you never know what details will become important. You can only connect the dots in hindsight so record everything. Last week, I remember seeing an orange-haired woman as I walked my dog. She rode by me on her bicycle at dusk and as she sung – loud and bold – her voice echoed through the street. I wrote it down immediately. If I hadn’t, I couldn’t tell you her hair colour. Or even the time of day. If I wasn’t constantly taking notes, I wouldn’t have a file thick with images which will hopefully one day grow into essays.
If you’d like to sharpen your nonfiction writing or work on your freelance game, check out our short courses series here.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in Adelaide and Writers Bloc's Writing Development Manager. Her work has appeared in the Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She tweets at @katerina_bry.
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