To Tell the Truth

The Plain Truth
This article is a variation of my guest post on Sharon Lippincott’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.

A common oath for courtroom witnesses is: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” While witnesses may still raise their right hands, the use of a Bible in taking the oath has mostly gone out of favor in deference to a variety religious beliefs. The word God is deleted for Atheists and Muslims.

Rotary International encourages members to use its Four-Way Test in all personal and business matters: "Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?"

Which brings me to memoirs; to what extent are writers of memoirs required to tell the truth? After all, a memoir is a collection of remembrances, not an exercise in journalism. The best memoirs tell good stories with conflicts, lessons learned, issues resolved or not, and changes that bring growth. Can a memoirist accurately and fairly remember all that stuff, especially the dialogue? And do readers really care?

Liars or good storytellers?
Storytelling has its extremes. Local and regional liars’ clubs encourage the telling of tall tales for fun. Mary Karr, in The Liars' Club: A Memoir, tells of “a terrific family of liars and drunks” with tidbits and chunks of redeeming truths. Some critics claimed to be unable to tell whether, in some cases, Karr was retelling a fabrication or creating one. She made up the name Leechfield, Texas as her hometown, probably to spare the feelings of residents of her real hometown because of the gritty and raw nature of her childhood.

James Frey was embarrassed by national media when the media revealed much of his bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, was made up; Oprah Winfrey publicly rebuked him for lying after she initially praised him.

A lot of movies are declared to be based on true stories. Based on are the operative words; in many cases, if not most, the opening credits should include, “Some of the following is true.”

Does memoir qualify as creative nonfiction, that ambiguous and relatively new term for using fiction writing techniques to tell true stories? Lee Gutkind posits creative nonfiction encourages personal viewpoint and conjecture.

One way to evaluate a memoir
Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, writing for the Nieman Storyboard project at Harvard University, declared there are no simple answers for the complex questions surrounding truth in memoirs. That said, they tried to take on the problems of memoir inaccuracies by constructing a scoring system, a system they admit is half-facetious and half-serious. They rate inaccuracies according to their negative reflections on people, living or dead; corroboration of facts; questionable dialogue; clichés and flat writing; and self-deprecation. A passing score is 65 out of 100. They applied their scoring to nine memoirs from the year 397 CE to 2009 CE. Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast received a 69, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces got 29, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life got 69. Read the full scoring report and download a printable worksheet to evaluate your memoir. It is a subjective process, since we are all biased about our own work, but it could prove insightful.

The bottom line
What does all this mean for today’s writers of memoirs? If you want to be accepted and respected then you must be as accurate and truthful as possible. What does it mean for today’s readers of memoirs, who are the final judges because they approve or reject memoirs based on what they buy? As Yagoda and DeLorenzo said, “. . . an informed reader has to make the call.”

Photo: First page of The Plain Truth, a 1747 political pamphlet published by Benjamin Franklin. Courtesy

What challenges have you faced in writing the truth in your memoir, life story, or family history?


  1. I asked Mary Carr about her dialog and she (evasively, in my opinion) said she had a good memory and it was true. What she probably meant is that is was the gist of the truth. I suspect most readers like me don't care if it is word-for-word, rather does it carry the meaning of what was said and what happened. Now events, to me you'd better make sure your truth meshes with historical evidence. For me, I've written the truth as we know it and as I researched it, but not the whole truth!

  2. Thanks for your perspective, Linda. Truth is elusive. Too often, we share only the truth we hope benefits us or influences others to our way of thinking. The budget and debt wrangling by politicians in Washington, D.C. is an example. Another is jury trials, in which attorneys want jurors to hear the truth that only benefits clients, as in the Casey Anthony trial.