This week author Crys Cain is joined by special guest Valerie Ihsan. They discuss the top myths of writing memoir and some tips and tricks to help you write yours.
Crys: Hello, friends. Welcome to the Author Life Podcast. I’m your host, Crys Cain, and with me this week is special guest, Valerie Ihsan. Valerie is a member of The Author Life Community. She is a three-story method editor. She is also a novelist and a memoirist. Welcome, Valerie.
Crys: We are going to talk today about the top myths about writing memoir, of which you have a handful. And you’ve seen this both in how you’ve approached memoir yourself and in client work, yes?
Valerie: Yes, definitely.
Crys: So what is your first myth?
Valerie: A lot of people that are writing get hung up in the details and feel like, you know, I have to put this in because this is the way it happened. And that isn’t always the best course of action when you’re writing a story. Our main purposes for writing are like educating, or entertaining, or connecting, getting a bond with the readers. And so in order to bring that message across, we need to borrow from the literary form and take some creative license, and maybe compress some time, or tell our truth in a different way, or make it palatable to receive.
And so everything that happened in your story doesn’t have to be on the page. So I would say that’s probably the first thing that folks get hung up on when they’re writing memoir for the first time, or the fifth time.
Crys: I think that’s one of the things that I have difficulty with because even though like I can conceive of the narrative arc of the memoir and maybe like rearranging the order in which I tell things, the smudging of fact gets me sometimes. How do you walk people that?
Valerie: I don’t smudge the truth. I think everyone that writes memoir will have their own line in the sand, and every writer is going to have a little slightly different idea of what’s okay and what’s not okay.
For me, I think compressing time is fine. Like you said, for the literary purposes for that narrative arc, you can move scenes around. And so maybe this happened two years ago, but I’m gonna stick it here because it’s the same topic and it illustrates the point that I’m making right here. It did happen, I didn’t make it up, but I just moved it into a different timeline. I think that’s okay.
When it comes to recreating dialogue that you can’t remember, I think that, I don’t know– for me, I let go of the stringency. I think that if it is something that the character would have said in that circumstance, or if it was something that they did say, but not in that scene, that kind of gets a little dicey for me. Like, Ooh, they did say that word, they did say that sentence, they didn’t say it to me in this room, they said it to me in the living room. Okay, I can work with that. But if they didn’t say it in this context, mmm maybe. So you do have a little bit of questioning, you have to check in with yourself and see what feels true and what feels a little bit icky. If it feels icky, then I wouldn’t do it.
Valerie: You wanna show truth to your readers, and your readers are expecting that. If they pick up a memoir, they know that it is a true story and that everything in it is true to the best of the author’s memory and concept and cognitive concept of what happened to them the way they remembered it and the way they experienced it. So I wouldn’t smudge on that kind of thing.
Crys: That makes sense. What is our second myth?
Valerie: Let’s see, what else? I guess back on that telling the truth part. If you write something about your family and your family reads it and they say “that didn’t happen that way, that’s not the way I remembered it, that’s not what he said,” then you can remind yourself that this is your story, and this is your experience, and this is the way that you remembered it. And this is your story, you’re telling it. So they can write their own version if they want to. And I would say that both versions are true because it is how we experienced it.
And I think it’s okay to have conviction that what you’ve written is true, whether or not someone says, no, that’s not the way it happened. You can do more research. You can ask your aunt, ” what did you remember? Because I can’t quite remember. I think it’s this way, but my sister says it’s this way.” And maybe they have other information that you don’t and you can change it because of that.
But I think remembering that this is your story and it’s the way you remember it, I think that’s fine. I think that’s telling the truth.
Crys: Yeah, where you said about the drawing the line in the sand, I think Rachael Herron says that there’s a couple people in her life that if they’re included in this story, she will send the part of the story that they are in to them. And certain people have full veto power of what stories they are told in, the really important people in her lives. Others might get suggestion power, and others may just get their name changed.
Valerie: Yeah. Yeah. I work through that too. I call that the hierarchy of relationships. If it’s a relative by a former marriage and you haven’t talked to them in seven years, then I don’t even bother talking to them about it, I just put them in. If it’s deceased parent, they’re not gonna be able to– they’re not there, so it doesn’t matter what they think because they can’t.
If it’s your sister, then you know, obviously you’re gonna have maybe a different relationship and you want them to read it and have that suggestive power or whatever, or a spouse or a partner. Anything that I write about my husband, he will have full veto power on.
If it’s my best friend, I definitely care about what she thinks. And if she’s uncomfortable with what I’ve written, I might suggest why I’ve written it that way. You know, like, Oh, I think it’s really important that I put this in because X, Y, Z. Is there another way that I could show that? Is there a different thing that you’re remembering that I could put in that would still show that? Or that sort of thing. So that hierarchy of relationships. Yeah, for sure.
Crys: And then maybe we’ll do the top three, if you wanna pick one more off the list.
Valerie: So yeah, another one that people are often worried about is, what if I get sued? And this is important if you are writing a memoir that involves people in power or have a high like celebrity facing or something like that. I wouldn’t worry about it if it’s about your neighbor.
Crys: Unless your neighbor’s really famous.
Valerie: I hesitate to, okay, this is gonna be like when I try to coach people through memoir, I try to be that cheerleader and give them good advice and keep them empowered to write their story. But I also wanna be the cheerleader with like cowboy boots and a leather jacket and tell them how it is. And knows who you are. I hate saying that.
Nobody knows who I am, and so I’m not worried about what I’m putting in my memoirs because I’m not gonna get sued. What that Sue means is libel, which is publishing a false statement that is damaging to someone’s reputation, a written defamation or whatever. So if you are writing your truth, the way you experienced it, and you are talking about your growth throughout the way. You’re not talking about stuff that’s done to you by other people, you’re talking about how you grew through an experience.
And so if you keep it to that and make it less expose or less ‘ this guy did me wrong’ kind of memoir, if you’re not trying to hurt someone while writing it. If you’re in that place then it’s not time to write the memoir yet, or you can write it, but it’s not time to publish it yet.
So keeping in mind that if you’re not damaging someone’s reputation, and nobody knows who you are anyway, I don’t feel like it really matters. And you can always change names and descriptions and jobs even. My personal line in the sand is not to write any composite characters when I’m writing memoir. And I always leave an author’s note at the beginning saying I’ve changed the name for privacy’s sake or whatever.
Crys: Protect the guilty.
Valerie: What was that from, Fargo?
Crys: I don’t know. It’s just what I’ve heard in reference to memoir.
Valerie: So, yeah, so you can always just make sure that your readers know what you’re doing. And I think you can pretty much write whatever you want then as long as they know what to expect.
Crys: Thank you so much for sharing with us this week. Where can our listeners find you on the internet?
Valerie: My website is ValerieIhsan.com and Ihsan is I-H-S-A-N. I’m also on The Writer Craft Podcast.
Crys: I was gonna say, I forgot to mention your podcast at the beginning, so we need to plug it here.
For our listeners, the question I wanna leave with you this week is: have you thought about writing memoir? And if you’ve thought about it, but haven’t done it yet, why not?
Thank you so much for joining us each and every week for these discussions on craft and business. If you would like to have more of these conversations in real time, you can check out our community at www.theauthorlife.com.