Would You Stretch the Truth or Lie in a Memoir?


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James Frey has been dragged through the media because of claims that he exaggerated some of the details in his book A Million Little Pieces. He recently appeared on Oprah as a way to bring closure to that chapter in his life. He felt he owed it to Oprah after the drama unfolded around him and his book in 2006. Greg Mortenson author of Three Cups of Tea still faces charges that the story was fabricated. The financial statements of his foundation, Central Asia Institute (CAI), are being investigated; they could be faulty. Unfortunately, stretching the truth sometimes happens in a memoir. The question is, “Would you stretch the truth or lie in a memoir just to get it published?”

I watched the May 16, 2011 interview with James Frey and couldn’t help but have compassion for him. Let’s face it, his book didn’t publish itself. You’d think the literary agent and publisher would check the ‘facts’ and ask tough questions to ensure the memoir was truthful. But as you know, controversy is a big seller.

The readers of James’ memoir felt betrayed and were given their money back. Readers expect authors to be truthful, especially when they resonate with the author’s story. Most readers will say, “I can relate to this story.” When they find out it’s a complete fabrication, it’s like being kicked in the gut. Perhaps they’re working on getting over being betrayed or learning to trust people again. Knowing that a book is completely false could do more harm than good.

It’s true that an author’s memory may be inaccurate, but when you’re writing about something that’s close to your heart, chances are you’ll remember. In fact, you probably journaled about your experience which means you can use your journals as a basis for your book. Having the attitude, “Most writing is fiction,” won’t be accepted my most readers. Look at how politicians are crucified for ‘tweeting’ or posting lewd pictures of themselves on social media networks. Do you want to have that experience? If you have a family, you may not want the experience.

When in doubt, avoid lying in your memoir. Most memoirs are emotionally charged because their based on childhood trauma, addiction, or some other harrowing event. Readers expect that you’re telling the truth. They’ll be devastated if they find out you invented facts or the entire story! Make sure readers know the memoir is based on your experience. Anyone mentioned in your book, i.e., family, friends, spouses, co-workers, etc. will have a different story from yours. It’s important to disclose this. Your memoir is based solely on what you experiences — it’s your version of the story.


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