How Truthful are Memoirs?

August 1, 2022 § 27 Comments

In his essay “How Truthful are Memoirs?”, Roy Peter Clark, a journalist and Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, offers a detailed list of ten “rigorous steps to an honest form of writing,” making a firm argument that there is a clear line between fact and fiction in memoir. We present his steps below, followed by a link to the full essay (featuring Mary Karr and Vivian Gornick). We’d love for you to weigh in through our comment section as to your level of agreement with Clark’s standards:

  1. Any degree of fabrication turns a story from nonfiction into fiction, which must be labeled as such. (A story cannot be a little fictional.)
  2. The writer, by definition, may distort reality by subtraction (the way a photo is cropped), but is never allowed to distort by adding material to nonfiction that the writer knows did not happen.
  3. Characters that appear in nonfiction must be real individuals, not composites drawn from a number of persons. While there are occasions when characters can or should not be named, giving characters fake names is not permitted. (They can be identified by an initial, a natural status “The Tall Woman,” or a role “The Accountant.”)
  4. Writers of nonfiction should not expand or contract time or space for narrative efficiency. (Ten conversations with a source that took place in three locations cannot be merged into a single conversation in a single location.)
  5. Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source.  Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.
  6. We reject the notion in all of literature of a “higher truth,” a phrase that has been used too often as a rationalization in nonfiction for making things up. It is hard enough, and good enough, to attempt to render a set of “practical truths.”
  7. Aesthetic considerations must be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
  8. Nonfiction does not result from a purely scientific method, but responsible writers will inform audiences on both what they know and how they know it. The sourcing in a book or story should be sufficient so that another reporter or researcher or fact-checker, acting in good faith, could follow the tracks of the original reporter and find comparable results.
  9. Unless working in fantasy, science fiction, or obvious satire, all writers, including novelists and poets, have an affirmative duty to render the world accurately through their own research and detective work. 
  10. The escape clause: There may be occasions, when the writer can think of no other way to tell a story than through the use of one or more of these “banned” techniques. The burden is on the writer to demonstrate that this is so. To keep faith with the reader, the writer should become transparent concerning narrative methods. A detailed note to readers should appear AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK to alert them of the standards and practices of the writer.


You can read Clark’s full essay here at, and please take some time to let us know your thoughts, agreements, disagreements, questions.

Tagged: , ,

§ 27 Responses to How Truthful are Memoirs?

  • This is wonderful. I want that t-shirt. I have always fought for that comma, and prefer calling it the “Oxford” comma.

    Brevity once posted a realistic and honest workaround for certain kinds of detail. Include what was likely, but reveal both why it was likely and be clear you are guessing. e.g. “My brother once used his new cassette recorder to tape a Thanksgiving dinner conversation, and aside from Please-pass-the-gravy comments, the only sounds were of cutlery clicking on china. It was one of the few holiday meals I remember we shared in Seattle rather than in Portland so it was probably after my grandmother died, and such little cassette decks were a new thing. There must have been turkey because I was the one who always did the turkey from the age of about 12, and mashed potatoes because my brother insisted. Brussel’s sprouts might have been on the table because my dad loved them… When he played back his tape of that silent table we all laughed about it, but it was sad, wasn’t it? We were such a talkative family to sit over a holiday meal without conversation. Perhaps that was also because my grandmother, my ‘Gaga’, was gone.”

    Perhaps, probably, maybe… because.

    • And then I went and read the entire article. Yes! AND he used Mary Karr as his model for honest memoir. When I was teaching memoir, I used her too.

      • And having that realization about Gaga being gone was new to me. And it was Christmas, not Thanksgiving because my brother got the cassette machine for Christmas, didn’t he. That means we had a standing rib roast and gravy and mashed potatoes but not stuffing. Waldorf salad. Probably pie but not pumpkin. So may I leave it set at Thanksgiving because I could do a lot with that holiday and without offending anyone’s religion? Can I make up conversations I can’t possibly remember because that will make my memoir more interesting for readers?

        No, it doesn’t mean that.* That’s not a “factual” memoir. Though this happened more than 50 years ago and I will never recall for certain what anyone said, that doesn’t mean I get to make things up.

        * Well, of course I can write whatever I want, but I can’t claim to be writing facts if I am fictionalizing an event and I shouldn’t complain if someone questions whether my invented details still qualify as a factual memoir.

        But we all missed Gaga and the drive to her home in Oregon. That’s the part that matters and deserve exploration.

  • patzgray says:

    As a student of memoir I question a writer’s ability to hold every detail of a memoir to a standard of absolute truth. In living our lives, we don’t record or document every conversation or circumstance as they happen with an eye to writing about it perhaps decades later. I appreciate Brevity’s workaround, but I wonder about the reader’s interest in rhetoric about why something was probably, maybe, perhaps true.

    • imo If you are making it up, it’s created fiction, not creative nonfiction. I want to know that going in. Mary Karr is clear at the beginning of Liar’s Club that her mother and sister have read her memoir, recall events slightly differently, but are okay with her version. She’s not making stuff up but recalling it to the best of her ability. Mary McCarthy did something similar in the book version of her memoirs where she added notes to each chapter, explaining what she was certain of and what she guessed and that her mother told her that one childhood event could not have taken place as she remembered because her uncle had been dead before she was born.

      By contrast, I knew a memoirist who included an event with her father-in-law which she created because it was “symbolically accurate.” Other people who were present knew it was a lie and called her on it. She will never live that down.

      If writers want to make stuff up, call it what it is: fiction.

      Craig Lesley, for example, wrote a story based his experience raising a child with fetal alcohol syndrome and an event where that child was implicated in a murder. He guessed. He invented. He wrote a novel, Storm Riders (2000).

      He later wrote another book about the same events. He told what he knew, what he experienced, remembered, and could research and prove happened. He presented his guesswork AS guesswork, not fact. He wrote memoir, Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood (2005).

      I also appreciate that in the full article, Clark insists on wisdom from the writer. My blood pressure still rises every time I recall a memoir about runaway children—beautifully written, but the author never once takes responsibility for actions that led to adolescent children repeatedly running away. I kept reading, hoping that eventually this insight would appear, that the author would reveal wisdom gained from experience, would act with love and compassion instead of selfish indignation, but all I found was a nonstop woe-as-me complaint that offers no wisdom to this reader.

      I have edited books and I am a competent and confident close reader. I regularly identify errors and inaccuracies in novels and memoir. Most are inevitable and I don’t mind at all. Some are unforgivable.

      In memoir, I want the author to demonstrate they have learned something from their experiences, because otherwise this is only cathartic and useful only to the writer, not to me.

      I am indebted to Dinty for having the guts to “poke the tiger” with this post.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    “5. Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.” I know I’m not the only one to disagree with this: there are plenty of published memoirs that do not adhere to this “rule.” To make the experience more vivid for the reader I don’t have a problem with the author creating dialog based on the gist of the conversation that transpired. When it comes to memory, it’s not possible to be 100% accurate. For example you may have an experience with 5 other people and all 6 of you have a different recollection of that exact same experience. Memoir is an art form, and “creative nonfiction” implies the author gets to be creative in some sense. Given all of the above, I still expect the author of memoir to not stray from the undeniable facts of the situation – e.g. Johnathan Franzen provides an example of what not to do.

    • I might agree with you about the way he asks dialogue to be marked differently when it recreated, but…

      Here’s the distinction: yes, you can recreate the gist of a conversation, when you have alerted your readers at the beginning that you will be doing that. But being “creative” does not mean you get to make stuff up in nonfiction. That’s lying: deliberate untruth told to deceive the reader.

      Clark asks that if you are recreating scenes to align as closely as possible with your memory, that you announce that up front. It was not a recorded conversation, but the best I can recall.

      And you are absolutely right that our memories are unreliable. That doesn’t provide an excuse for not trying to be accurate, regardless of what we have found published. All sorts of terrible stuff somehow manages to find publications and fans. Hollywood makes movies of horrible books by nasty people. I don’t have to like it.

      • camilla sanderson says:

        And in response to janpriddyoregon – yes, I find it very interesting to read the Author’s Notes at the beginning of memoirs – for example from Owusu, Nadia (2021-01-11). Aftershocks: A Memoir . Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

        Author’s Note
        A note about truth and time: I write toward truth, but my memory is prone to bouts of imagination. Others remember events differently. I can only tell my version. This does not mean I do not also believe theirs. Names have been changed. Time, for me, is not linear. I have written for meaning rather than order. I have blurred some lines between people and places.

      • camilla sanderson says:

        And another from Cunningham, Doreen. Soundings: Journeys in the Company of Whales: A Memoir (p. 279). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

        The relationships and events depicted in this book are as honest as I can make them, based on my experiences and memories. Some characters have been disguised, with changed names, physical descriptions, and other distinguishing details.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Apologies – of course I meant James Frey, not Johnathan Franzen.

  • maddielock1955 says:

    Reblogged this on Maddie Lock and commented:
    A mantle of responsibility.

  • Lisa Sellge says:

    Besides the focus on a select time period, the difference between autobiography and memoir is in the author’s analysis rather than reporting of events. Protecting privacy in memoir calls for things like name changes and disguising places. Composite characters play a role in both protecting privacy and keeping focus on the story the memoirist wants to tell. I agree that a disclaimer at the beginning, acknowledging that memory is shaped by perspective, is necessary. But when I read memoir, I know I am reading neither autobiography nor direct reporting. When my memoir, Narrow Girls on a Blue Profound Stage, was published this year, i grappled with the press about whether to use the word “memoir” and decided on autofiction which is a term I find allows me to
    make decisions like compressing time or taking a conversation from one location and moving it to another to keep the story from meandering. I believe memoir is a much freer form of recording the past. When I read memoir, it’s because I want to know how the author felt and evolved as a result of the experience. We all know each character in a memoir would describe the past with a unique spin. While I understand the desire to keep memoir believable by sticking close to actual events, I believe Clark’s rules are too limiting for memoir.

  • The author’s note in the front of a memoir can and should orient the reader to how the truth is told, I believe. And in the full article by Clark, he says that if he were judging: “The answer is transparency. I would feel more confident as a judge if I read at the beginning of the book an “about this book” page that explains its standards.”

    But what about the use of say a composite character. Is it ok to have one as long as you say that up up front? That technique feels like fiction (or maybe call it auto fiction) to me. In her memoir Blow the House Down, Gina Frangello has acknowledged that the character of Angie (who has a significant role) is based on several girls from her youth. I thought Frangello’s memoir was well-written and a very good read, but I took a step back when I found this out. I must have missed it if there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the book. Composite character veers from truth for me. And then makes me wonder what else might have been manipulated.

    THX for summarizing and sharing this article by Clark.

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    Thank you for this fine post. I believe a memoir should be as truthful as memory allows. Otherwise, why not write a novel? I have twice worked with memoir teachers who suggested that I should invent a situation and a conversation that did not take place, and that would have made little sense for the situations and emotions the scenes described. My finished memoir (waiting on the back burner while I am a full-time caretaker) takes place largely in my native country, but I write in English. This means that conversations are translated and thus lose some of the original feeling that only native words can express. For me, that was a far greater problem than accurately remembering what took place seventy plus years ago. Fortunately I have an excellent memory, and maybe those who don’t should stick to fiction.

  • abigail Thomas says:

    Well, let’s see. If Clark is insisting on facts, that is called autobiography. But memoir is about memory, and memory is a different animal altogether, notoriously unreliable, often inspired by event rather than faithful to it. Figuring out why we remember this and not that, and why with grief and not laughter, or with laughter and not grief, and why a dark night in Maine and not a busy Baltimore street, that’s all part of the story. But we don’t make shit up. And we don’t leave out the hard stuff. And what we do leave out is not meant to distort, but to reveal. (You don’t pile the entire Thanksgiving dinner on a pizza.) We write memoir to understand how we got here from there. We decide where the here is, where the there was, sometimes it changes along the way. There’s not much point in writing memoir if you aren’t honest. Honesty is not about facts. We write memoir for clarity, because there is no greater comfort than that.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Love this response Abigail Thomas! 🙏💖🕊

    • Julie Farrar says:

      Thank you for this perspective, Abigail Thomas. Sometimes in the world of nonfiction I feel like there is a real tension between the journalistic and literary nonfiction that we don’t really explore. For example, his #5 on dialogue seems to imply that 20 years ago before I knew I would be writing a memoir I should have sat down after a blowup with my daughter and recorded that conversation. I certainly can remember the gist and some key phrases, but am I doomed to using indirect speech for most or all of a book because I didn’t have a tape recorder or reporter’s notebook in my back pocket? There is a difference between making shit up and stitching together from an imperfect memory. Changing time, place, character? No. Remembering whether exactly my daughter called me a loser or something worse. I think that’s where a memoirist can have a little latitude (grace) while documenting another moment in the dying of a relationship.

      • “Remembering whether exactly my daughter called me a loser or something worse. I think that’s where a memoirist can have a little latitude (grace) while documenting another moment in the dying of a relationship.”

        That’s where I would write that I could not remember whether my daughter “called me a loser or something worse” because it is not the exact wording that matters but the feeling those words provoked, how they damaged the relationship. Emotion overwhelms precise wording—why pretend it doesn’t? Just my opinion and thank you for yours.

      • Julie Farrar says:

        But Jan, if a memoir is based on a part of life twenty years ago, does that mean it can only have indirect speech and never have dialogue because a writer will not be able to recreate verbatim interactions between characters?

      • Maybe it does, or maybe writers remember some of what was said (and warns readers) to recreate what was likely to have been said, or maybe writers recognize that literal back-and-forth dialogue with invented language is not the only way to get the scene to work. Entire novels are successfully written without dialogue, so writers could also write a novel as Craig Lesley did and invent scenes with characters saying anything they like to make the story work.

        The Pulitzer board has created a new prize: “The new Pulitzer Prize category will be for a distinguished and factual memoir or autobiography by an American author.”

        Those words “distinguished and factual” should make anyone think twice before inventing dialogue they do not recall from twenty or fifty years ago. It does not seem to me that there is much wiggle room for “factual” memoir to include invention.

        Memoir is not a novel. I think Clark’s insistence on wisdom derived from experience is one of the more important points Clark makes in his complete essay. Memoir focuses on an event or phase of life and should reveal wisdom gained. Wisdom gained does not require invented dialogue. It can be “distinguished and factual.”

        Just my opinion, of course. But apparently it is also what the Pulitzer require.

        “Inspired by real events” is what Hollywood does to reality—the main character might have the name of a real person, or not, but suddenly that actual person who was divorced twice is faithful from high school, the arrests are ignored, their brothers do not exist, and what was accomplished over sixteen years of hard research and many failures becomes a two hour movie covering 3 weeks in time. The movie might make a better story than the reality. It might be more entertaining to most in the audience who do not want to watch genuine struggle or the complexities and questions of that real person.

        Is it factual?

    • vrendes says:

      I totally agree. Well said!

  • stacyeholden says:

    As a historian, I agree with all ten of these points, but as a writer who loves story, it makes me want to write a memoir that takes place on some alien planet that cannot support human life. Giving the historian pride of place for the moment, I often encourage writers to find the connection or truth, which may not immediately seem to fit into the jigsaw puzzle they are putting together. If you think long enough about why that piece doesn’t seem (at first glance) to fit, you often can figure out the more interesting connections and stories that lie underneath the obvious.

    • Stacy, “[Y]ou often can figure out the more interesting connections and stories that lie underneath the obvious” That’s it exactly! In the memory I recounted above, I learned more about that day my brother taped our [lack of] family dinner conversation by working hard to determine what I could know/believe was absolute truth than I ever did simply telling it as a funny story.

      Again, I honor Dinty for poking this particular tiger. It is a valuable discussion, and as in any discussion, there will be differences of opinion.

      I am curious whether anyone actually disagrees with the right of a reader to be able to trust that if we write that our brother said and did X and Y in thus-and-such a place, that this is true and not distortion, exaggeration, or pure fabrication? Do we agree on that much? I thought we did, but perhaps I am wrong.

      (I am so weary of non-writers exclaiming over books: “OOO, but it really happened!” when I have read the book and for various reasons I am not so certain.)

  • Anne Van Etten says:

    We tend to clearly remember events and conversations that had long-term emotional significance. If we write about those, and not about the hazy stuff, we are likely to write truthfully and honestly. And regarding conversations, they are primarily a novelistic device and not necessary in memoir although often interesting. Nabokov wrote an excellent memoir without a single conversation. But then, of course, he was Nabokov.

  • marilyn801 says:

    What a killjoy you are, Clark! Joe Friday (DRAGNET) may have a reason for “just the facts, ma’am” – but that’s nothing I care to read!

  • Ariadne says:

    Mainly I agree with these ten standards. But here’s a question: If I hit someone with a telephone receiver, and I say I hit that person with the telephone, is that making the action fiction? If I say someone punched me in the face when that person slapped me in the face, is that fiction? Does it really matter and why would anyone care? A blow is a blow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading How Truthful are Memoirs? at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: