The current consternation over whose responsibility it is to check facts, what constitutes a fact and whether or not a memoir is nonfiction is most entertaining. That’s because, having been the lead writer of a family memoir, I can tell you that one person’s fact is often another person’s “whaa?” And my book didn’t even feature any stints in the county jail.
Different people have different recollections. That’s entirely within the realm of possibility when writing a memoir. And when it came to our story, I chose to skim the cream from the top — focusing on the best of my generation’s early history, intimately, without sacrificing the things that should remain private. In other words, it can still be a memoir even if you don’t tell everything.
If a memoir is, as Webster’s indicates, “a narrative composed from personal experience,” then it stands to reason that it falls into the realm of nonfiction. So the writer should do everything possible to keep it factual, not just true. If the story itself carries enough power, embellishment is unnecessary; in the right hands, the mundane facts become compelling perspective and serve a larger story arc. Hyper-dramatic device is unnecessary from the pen of a person with a command of the language and a grasp of the soul. Memories can fade and unintended mistakes in their telling can easily happen. But when narrative license is chosen above factual accuracy, just to serve the arc, then it’s reasonable for readers to question what else has been manipulated.
Which begs the question, why manipulate? Marketing, pure and simple. Writers often decide that something isn’t salacious or funny enough to hold the reader’s interest, so in this relativistic world, they rationalize that a bit of fantasy is OK as long as a fact is generally true. It might affect an author’s positioning as a wise soul if the situation isn’t dramatic enough, so the writer asks himself, what’s the harm in making things a bit more dramatic. Well, this writer should move into fiction. Or movies or television or theater. Because that’s where you get to write fantasy.
And about whose job it is to check the facts: there’s a simple way for publishers and editors to help writers stick to the facts. Just keep asking them if they are. Most of the time, if a writer knows the publisher is paying attention, the writer pays attention, too. Still, if it’s OK with the publisher for a memoir-writer to embellish the facts, just mention it in the foreword. Marketing requires managing expectations.
Grounded marketers encounter this phenomenon all the time. Companies feel that they need to glam-up their products or services or, as Sondheim wrote, “You gotta get a a gimmick.” [That was a song about strippers, by the way.] So, if you can’t produce copy or imagery that captures something compelling about what you’re trying to sell, you need to probe further. Because it’s there. Something is there, and it’s your job to find it and wax eloquent about that. Same with a book about a real life.