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.

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

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