Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Reading and Writing Memoirs by Melissa Heiselt

Truth is stranger than fiction,  and we love to be voyeurs. Unlike autobiographies, which detail a lifetime of achievements and more commonly feature the rich, powerful, or famous; memoirs are the distilling of a life. Any life. All comers are welcome to try their hand here as the genre has exploded in the recent decades. Perhaps as technology has burgeoned, pulling us further from the intimate lives of others, we subconsciously seek a replacement; be it social media, mommy bloggers, reality TV, or a good memoir. Here we can explore the nitty-gritty of a life we might never otherwise touch, crossing boundaries and borders forbidden to us. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls encounters deep poverty and abuse, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom confronts aging and death with grace and humor, diaries by Anaïs Nin dive into unexplored paths of sexuality, and Memoirs by Pablo Neruda dances us around the globe to absorb humanity in all its glory and shame.

When writing a memoir, remember that it isn’t your whole life’s story; it is only a snapshot. Perhaps you want to share the profound insights you’ve discovered as you’ve aged. Maybe you ascribe to a religion or subculture that is massively misunderstood, and your life could be a window to educate the world about it. Each life is unique and has value as the face of humanity with beauty that can be cultivated with artistic framing. Written in first person, a memoir can be as natural to write as telling a string of stories to a friend. With the help of a memoir coach or editor, you can home in on the anecdotes that make the most impact and sharpen the focus of your work. It is the lessons learned, the harrowing journey, or your hilarious outlook on life that make a compelling read.

While detailing your life there will inevitably be other people involved unless you are a modern day hermit. You will need to carefully choose how to navigate the impact your work may have on those mentioned in it. While a memoir is nothing if not unfailingly honest, avoid using a bitter, vengeful tone. It is not an opportunity to exact revenge or seek sympathy by public shaming as if it were a backhanded Facebook post. Be aware that defamation and invasion of privacy laws are there to protect people who feel they have been wrongfully maligned in print, so it is in your best interest to acknowledge that you may (and probably do) remember things differently from other characters in your story. It is okay to change names of those involved, but if there are enough other identifying details that they recognize themselves or worse, their colleagues can identify them, you can still find yourself in trouble. That said, the law typically is on your side. This is your story, after all, protected as such by the first amendment, and as long as what you’ve written is verifiable, you have nothing to fear.

Writing your own memoir can be an incredibly cathartic experience. When speaking of her prolific diary writing, Anaïs Nin once remarked that she found, “life would be more bearable if I looked at it as an adventure and a tale. I was telling myself the story of a life, and this transmutes into an adventure the things which can shatter you.” To take all the drama, pain, and challenges of the past and illuminate and refine the truths that have transpired is a powerful experience. Even if you don’t intend to pursue publication, it can be a worthy writing exercise, challenging your ability to craft narrative from seemingly disparate parts and see a story emerge that had been hidden for a lifetime.

Memoirs remind us that we are all human and as capable of triumph as defeat. People continue to surprise us again and again, and this genre more than any other allows us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. What a transformative journey that can be.

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