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What To Do in Memoir When Truth IS Stranger Than Fiction

Memoir Incubator writer Elizabeth Jannuzzi recalls a time when a reader didn't believe her truth and talks about ways to build a reader's trust while writing a memoir.

By Elizabeth Jannuzzi

December 01, 2022

One time in a workshop while giving me feedback on one of my personal essays, my classmate said she didn’t believe me when I said my mother never came into my teenage bedroom.

“It was on the third floor,” I explained.

“So what? She must have come up to clean or drop off laundry.”

“No, she left our clothes folded in the laundry room,” I mumbled, remembering how I used to get dressed in the basement before school.

I found myself in a weird position defending my actual experience. I even turned to a friend who had a third-floor bedroom as well.

“Did your mom ever come into your bedroom?”

“No, never,” my friend stated definitively.

Ok, so I was right but what does that matter if my readers don’t believe me? In fiction, if something rings untrue, the writer can easily change the scene to make it more believable. But what if a real fact rings untrue in a memoir? You still have the same issue as fiction writers, you need to make sure that your reader trusts you.

In that essay I wrote, whether or not my mother ventured up to my third-floor bedroom was not crucial to the plot of my story. If this small bit of information tripped up my readers, I could just remove it.

How to build trust

But of course, there might be some things in your memoir that are crucial to your story but seem unbelievable. Tara Westover’s Educated comes to mind. In her memoir, Westover included footnotes to explain that this is how she remembered certain shocking events, even if another family member disagreed. That’s one way to assure the reader that this is the truth to the best of your knowledge.

Another way to reassure your reader that you’re telling the truth is to be as accurate as possible with all your details. Are your current events on point? Do you describe your setting precisely? Are your characters wearing clothes that match the time and place of your memoir? What about the TV shows you mention? You might think it doesn’t matter what cartoon you are watching as a child, but if your reader knows that Backyardigans doesn’t come out for another 10 years, you’ve lost your credibility.

But you can’t please all the readers, all of the time.

When it comes down to it, you can’t fret too much about what your readers believe or don’t believe to be true. Each reader comes to your memoir with their own background which will alter their take on your story. You can’t please all the readers, all of the time. Just do your best to present your true story in a believable accurate manner, building trust one credible detail at a time. And if your mom never ventured up to your third-floor bedroom and it’s crucial to your story, keep it!

Elizabeth (Liz) Jannuzzi, Project Write Now’s operations and communications manager is a mother and writer living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in Pangyrus, Cagibi, and Entropy. She is currently working on a memoir about recovery.