David Carr, journalist author of The Night of the Smoking Gun, his memoir of his earlier drug-addled life, went to great pains to ensure his story was as accurate as possible by interviewing people in his past and reviewing his arrest records and rehab reports. With that kind of early life, I’m sure a lot of forgetting and distortion went on. It is refreshing to hear someone actually attempt to make sure his story is as correct as possible.
With the James Frey incident still rankling, the author of Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years admitting her memoir a fake, and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone under fire, memoir writers are under suspicion these days. Older examples include Go Ask Alice, now placed in the fiction category, and A Child Called It was called into question in 2002 by the author’s brother and grandmother who claimed it as blatant distortion. If you are famous, if your story is sensational or controversial, you better darn well make sure your memoir is as factual as possible. But isn’t the definition of memoir the truth as we know it? That leaves a lot of wiggle room.
While I was writing Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, my mother’s story of her early life in Japan around WWII, I went to a lot of trouble researching WWII in the Pacific theatre. If I could not verify something, for example, that a certain type of U.S. warplane my mother talked about flew bombing raids over Japan during the earlier part of war, then I did not mention the plane by type. This may seem nitpicky, but I know there are a lot of WWII vets and aviation history buffs who would point out an error. I also had a Japanese gentleman near the age of my mother verify the details of Japanese culture of the time. If someone finds an error in the facts of a memoir, then the whole memoir becomes suspect. The same, actually, with any piece of writing.
Should we be afraid of writing our stories? I say no, BUT as a responsible storywriter you should definitely verify any historical or cultural facts and you may want to consult with your family about events you are not sure of. If you are still unsure, the magic words are “I believe,” “As I recall,” or “I think.” Other than that, your story is your take on an experience. You do not need to apologize for having a different perspective, forgetting exact details or muddying the waters. It is YOUR story of how it seemed to you, how you felt about it. If anyone disagrees, tell them that is how you remembered it. And that’s that.