Interview on How to Write Memoirs - Part 5

This is Part 5 of our conversation about how to write memoirs with Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett ofWomensMemoirs.comClick here to go to Part 1.

In this part of the conversation, Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler talk about how memoirists deal with the subjective nature of truth and memory.

A Conversation with Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler: Memoir Writing and Emotional Truth

Matilda: There’s the question of, what is truth in a memoir and how can you really be sure you’re telling the truth—particularly if you haven’t kept a journal and written everything that happened to you every single day of your life, and now you are presuming to sit down and recall things that happened ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago.

Kendra: I think our opinions differ from some other memoirists that we know. Some feel that the journal is necessary because you need to be so literally true. We feel that it is about capturing the essence of the story, the emotion, the outcome, and the fact that you ended up making up some line or two of dialogue to add to the interest level for the reader so that it is just not all flat narrative… And you’ve tried to reconstruct a conversation and, goodness, unless you had a tape recorder, you probably aren’t going to get it 100 percent right…Is that wrong? Not in my opinion, and I would say Matilda feels the same way. 

Matilda: Absolutely. Here’s a clear case of it—there’s a woman that we interviewed who wrote a book about her childhood in Korea. And, of course, she is Korean and she has dialogue with her mother. And of course, she writes it in English, and her Mother only spoke Korean. She now teaches English in the U.S. So, how do you say that? That’s the perfect example in which she couldn’t possibly share that dialogue with us without having to change it.

I think all of us have the sense of an emotional truth, versus some external reality out there. And I can tell you about, let’s say, an argument with my son, and I can definitely give you the emotional truth of it. But, will it be the exact words? No. How could it be?

Sometimes an emotional truth is even truer than if I went exactly line by line about what happened. Because, again, we are interpreting it in terms of what it meant to us. So something might mean nothing to another person that was in the room. And they would say, “Oh, I don’t know, it wasn‘t any big deal.” And you might say, “It was a very important moment in my life.” That’s because it is your truth. As long as you look inside yourself and say, “That is my truth. That is what I thought, what I felt, what I heard,” then no one can argue with it because it is your truth and it’s your memoir.

In the next part of our conversation, Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett suggest specific techniques for how to write memoirs more effectively.

How to Write Memoirs - Next Steps

Read Part 6 of our conversation with Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett.

Read our interview about about how to write memoirs with author Heather Sellers.

Get memoir writing ideas from this list of writing prompts.

Go to the main how to write memoirs page.

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