Writing Truth in Personal Essays, Creative Nonfiction and Memoir — Áine Greaney

In the bestselling memoir, “ The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls writes about how her mother urges her author daughter to “just tell the truth.”

However, in many families and for many of us nonfiction authors, it’s rarely that simple. Recently, I remembered Ms. Walls’ advice when I read a “New York Times” Modern Love essay, “ Please go Shelter in Another Place.”

The NYT essay is written by a woman whose husband decided to spend part of the pandemic lockdown apart from his wife. After 25 years of marriage, he moved out of the family home and into a nearby AirBnB.

No spoilers here, but this COVID-season marital story ended happily — with some human relations lessons learned along the way.

As I read this NYT Modern Love essay, I was gob smacked by the set of reader comments-most via social media-which ranged from admiring to smug (“we’re married longer than 25 years, and the pandemic has brought us closer”) to the obnoxiously pedantic (“that’s not how marriage works!”).

As a writer and a wife, many of these struck me as Exhibit A in how we love to co-opt or re-write the truth of another person’s story. Or, worse, some of us will deny that writer’s lived experience or emotional truth to replace it with our own.

This amounts to a kind of narrative piracy.

I’ve had my share of narrative pirates-and no, I’m not talking about those thoughtful editors and readers who have pointed out where and how the narrative should be stronger or clearer. Hurrah for those editors and readers!

Instead, I’m talking about the folks who want to deny or shellac my lived experience for a version that better fits their own belief system. Or fears or biases.

It’s an odd human trait, this story-piracy, and one that I’m not qualified to diagnose or decipher. I do know this, though: When someone else tries to tell or un-tell or one-up our truths, it feels like human erasure.

The Nonfiction Writers’ Truth Dilemma

As essayists and memoirists and storytellers, we’ve all encountered that reader-often a family member-who remembers the details of the story or the scene differently.

“Oh, no,” a sibling might say. “It was Aunt Julia who came for Christmas that year.”

Fair enough.

In his essay, “The Creative Nonfiction Police?” Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, urges nonfiction writers to “strive for the truth.”

So before you write about that fabled, 1978 Christmas with the aunties, go take a rummage through the family albums to fact-check your details.

Or, sans the box of family Polaroids, we essayists can cop to our own flawed memories-right there on the published page.

“Memory,” we write, “is a slippery thing, so that year, I couldn’t tell you if it was Aunt Julia or Auntie Maggie who drank all the Christmas cognac.”

By the way, if you want a standout example of how one writer blends both fact-checked corroboration and her own, out-loud attempt to patch together a semi-forgotten past, read Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, “Memorial Drive.”

By contrast, the negative comments on the NYT Modern Love essay are not an attempt to fact-check the details of this husband-and-wife story. How could they be? Yet, these commenting strangers-presumably emboldened by social media-appointed themselves as arbiters of this essayist’s truths and, in some cases, the bylaws for marriage.

Off the page, at work or at social gatherings, I’ve been told, “You shouldn’t let that bother you.” “That’s not what you should take from that.”

You shouldn’t. You should.

(Hmm … really? Sweetheart, talk to the heart.)

On the page, I’ve had my own share of reader comments that are not about the nonfiction piece or the issue it raises, but, instead, offers a “you should” diatribe on what my lived truth should be or how it should be presented.

As Creative Nonfiction Writers, What Truths Should or Can We Tell?

As a creative writing teacher, students sometimes ask about how to write or tell a creative nonfiction piece or a personal essay without bashing or trashing the real-life characters therein. Perhaps this is what Jeanette Walls’ mother was referring to in her “just tell the truth” permission or invitation to her daughter, who wrote about the family’s chaotic past and the fallouts of parental substance use.

I never have an easy answer to this ‘tell-the-truth’ question. However, I urge students to ask themselves the same questions I used to ask patients at the healthcare organizations where I was privileged to tell patient or family stories-particularly vulnerable and disenfranchised patients.

Five or 10 years from now (I asked), will you be proud of this story being out in the world? Being visible to employers? Your children’s teachers? And: Which matters more to you? To tell your own story and its temporal and emotional truths? Or to maintain your personal relationships with the people in your story?

Of course, there’s also the issue of libel.

As a Writer, Here’s How I Handle the Truth Issue

In his creative nonfiction “police” essay, Lee Gutkind posits that truth in nonfiction is “a question of doing the right thing, being fair, following the golden rule.” In deciding between what to tell and what to withhold, this is the best guideline I know. In some ways, it’s a writer’s version of the do-no-harm Hippocratic Oath.

In my own non-fiction work, I try very hard to do one of these:

(a) Distinguish between the issue of incorrect or misremembered facts (No, it was Aunt Julia who came that year) and the possibility that the naysayer or story pirate has their own agenda.

(b) Only tell or voice what I’m qualified or morally sanctioned to tell or voice.

As writers, we thrive on discussion and debate. We want to engage our readers-both those who agree and who disagree with our point of view. Most of us love suggestions on how the narrative can be clearer and better.

But before any of us posts a comment on a nonfiction story, we need to first ask ourselves: “What right do I have to shellac or deny this writer’s lived and heartfelt truths?”

Originally published at http://www.ainegreaney.com.

Irish author, workshop leader in Boston area. Fifth book, “Green and Other Essays” just released. More at www.ainegreaney.com

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