Thursday, September 15, 2022

Dear O'Abby: How true does my memoir have to be?

 Dear O'Abby,

I'm writing a memoir about my experiences traveling the Silk Road in the late 1970s and early '80s.  It was something I did a few times as I was a tour guide in the region, mainly escorting fairly high profile individuals on their journeys.  We had some adventures, I tell you!

Which is why I'm wanting to write this memoir.  

What I'm wondering, is how much can I stray from the truth?  I'm not wanting to make stuff up wholesale, but I feel like there are a few details I'd like to change, mainly to avoid these high profile people getting pissed off about the way they are portrayed.  I'm not going to use names (they'll be identified only as The Politician, The Rock Star, The Mafia Don etc), but I'm certain people will recognise who I'm writing about even without names.

The general gist of events will be the same, but I'm wondering how much leeway I have to change certain elements.

Kind regards,


Dear Memoirist,

Sounds like a fascinating story!  And what challenging time to be travelling in that region.

In terms of straying from the truth, I'm of the opinion that memoir is your own recollection of an event and everyone remembers things differently.  Just think about any family gathering when people recall something - a Christmas past or a funeral or anything, actually - everyone is going to have a slightly different recollection of what happened, who was there and what was said and done.  So there is definitely some leeway to write your own memories of an event.

But I think what you're talking about is more like exaggeration or embellishment or obscuring of facts and that is a more contentious issue.  Writers have been publicly eviscerated (see James Frey, Dan Mallory and JT Leroy, among others) when the so-called truth in their non-fiction books were revealed to be false.  People hate to feel as if they have been made a fool of, and being presented something as a true story that is later revealed to be not true at all, makes them feel foolish.

So I would be careful about what you present as true.  If there is a lot that you are going to need to fictionalise, maybe consider writing your book as fiction, rather than memoir.  It sounds like you have great material to draw on and the first-hand experience to make the world and the people in it realistic and engaging.  You can even use your experience as a selling point by explaining the events in the novel are based on your own experiences in this place at that time.

But if you feel like it has to be a memoir, it would definitely be worth including an author's note explaining that some events and characters have been changed for dramatic effect and to protect the identities of people involved.

Hope that helps!  And do let me know when the book comes out.  I already want to read it!

X O'Abby

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