Writing Truth and Memory in Memoir

There is truth and falsehood in a comma.

                       -Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love


Courtesy Goodreads

image courtesy goodreads

As a memoirist and writing instructor, I am often asked and often ask myself: “How do you deal with things you might not remember right?” In light of this question, Luanne over at Writersite.org once pointed me to Mary Karr’s work, “She pumps out a memoir every couple of years,” she said. because Karr’s numerous memoirs have “…  great literary ways of getting at this question within her work.”

And artful ways, I may add.


Reading Karr’s work has relieved me from an overt responsibility to some idea of what we call TRUTH.

TRUTH does not exist. It’s relative. It’s malleable. It’s IMPOSSIBLE.  And Karr loves to play on that edge. But, what would you expect from the writer of a “memoir” called the The Liar’s Club?   When you open your memoir series with that title, is not a lot of the “truth” suspect? Perhaps not.

Mary Karr’s literary approaches to a dysfunctional past not only render into art the poetry of dysfunction but create the essence of poetry: it is as it does. In this way Mary Karr so artfully explores her memory lapses, while absolving herself and her family from the more poisonous exposition that one person’s truths might bring to a story.

But the reality is that despite our attempts as humans to negotiate some forms of truth, our stories are filled with things that bend it: our human fallibility, our perceptions at the time of an event, our ability to reinvent the past—as both protective mechanism—and as creative creatures. It’s all good. It happens. It’s supposed to. It’s true.

Playing Telephone

Certainly you’ve played the age-old parlor game called Telephone. You know that what is received, is nuanced or wrongly regurgitated and becomes something else by the time the chain of humans has passed it on. Our brain does that on its own.

Or you could just do like Pam Houston – write everything as fiction, even though some of it perhaps isn’t. And then you write a book with a main character by your very own name, who does so many of the things you’ve done, but supposedly is not you, or you at least call that character’s existence into question as nonfiction. Did I get that right? Or does memory fail me since I’ve taken her workshop?

Lit Quotes

For a craft study, I have collected a number of phrases from Karr’s memoir Lit that release her from the over-emphasized responsibility of THE TRUTH.  Perhaps I over-exaggerate here for one for whom the truth is so important. But as for THE TRUTH in memoir, let’s see how Karr takes that on with a handful of lovely literary phrases, emphasized in context in bold below:

“I tug at Warren’s sleeve so he curves his tall form down, seeming to tolerate my peck on his lips. (Is this true or only my faulty interpretation?) The…”

Try this lovely quote on the ephemeral nature of memory:

Decades ago, I trained myself to mistrust that girl’s perceptions. No doubt she projected as many pixels onto the world’s screen as she took in. So while I trust the stories I recall in broad outline, their interpretation through my old self is suspect. Forget reporting the external events right, try judging them when you’re an alumna of custodial care. When I reach to grasp a solid truth from that time, smoke pours through my fingers.


There’s also a psychological phenomenon that messes with my ability to depict our nuptial collapse—the normally crisp film of my memory has, in this period, more mysterious blanks than the Nixon tapes. Maybe…

“Never (is this true?) did I lie in bed and have her cook for me.”


“Maybe that time is so blurry to me—”

“My first impulse in telling this is to claim that Warren had wanted to leave Cambridge worse than I did. That’s how I remember it.”


Again, there’s that mysterious dead-head space around the marriage’s unraveling. This blanking out has the same flat quality surrounding my time with Daddy before leaving home. The Freudian implications aren’t lost on me, of course. But what do these two radical disconnects mean in the story? Maybe my forgetting is how I absolve myself. .

Truth-Proof Absolution

And thus, perhaps we memoirists can rest a bit more assured that we can couch our writings in such a way to absolve us too from a worry about absolute truth…  I kid you not. Or would I?

Have you found an artful, literary workaround for questions of truth in your literary writing?

7 thoughts on “Writing Truth and Memory in Memoir

  1. Ugh, please tell me I did not say that! I’m pretty sure that the goddess of memoir Mary Karr works like crazy to craft her books and she’s as old as . . . me, so three memoirs in all those decades isn’t like cranking (or pumping haha) them out haha. And then there’s all her poetry and her living. But then maybe your memory of me saying that and me remembering not saying exactly that is like all memoir and memory ;).
    Here’s another thought: what if what you say about Pam Houston writing even what actually happened as fiction is what’s wrong? What if the notion of fiction when it’s not just made up fantasy (or even then?) is a lie? That it’s all the truth?
    I better go find some iced tea or diet Coke (the choice beverage of cyberland, moo). . . . See you tomorrow, gf.


    • LOL Luanne, Looks like I have some editing to do to make up for my creative mind lapse on quoting you!!! Thanks for sporting along on this. But I did take your recommendation seriously and I SOOO love Karr’s work! And, interesting thoughts on fantasy vs fiction… there are broad strokes we paint with these terms underwhich falls so many different truths!!!! oh, yes, coffee time. Looking forward to tomorrow! -R


  2. There are three sides to every story…his, hers and the truth. It is all a matter of perception. I love this blog and the way you have brought this subject into light. You are such an amazing teacher and writer!!!!!
    I remember years ago reading James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and the controversy the book brought about. I think, when writing, staying true to your memories without trying to dramatize them is the best way to narrate. I don’t really know because the two books I’ve written have not been finished. They are filed in a drawer of forgotten memories…lol! Way to go, Renee.


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