Truth in Memoir

July 29, 2019 Deborah Wilbrink

Truth in Memoir is important to the reader because trusting the author allows the story to become credible, the reader empathic. Many don’t realize how a memoir author agonizes over “What is Truth?” It always comes up at my workshops – how does one “remember” and tell the truth, perfectly? We don’t. Even when an event is happening, our minds are perceiving it differently from another person in the room, and our memory will save what it will. That does NOT efface the truth of your memory.  Tell it like you remember it and you will be sharing truth as you know it, truth in memoir.

How to Discern the Truth?

Storytellers also address the issue of truth. Reverend Gail Seavey, who uses story in her speaking repertoire, visited the concept of truth in her 2019 article for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville newsletter. She’s kindly allowed me to reprint it here, to take us a step further in considering truth in memoir:

“Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.”

– A Universalist covenant arranged by L.  Griswold Williams

Several traditional Unitarian and Universalist covenants refer to seeking or questing for the truth. I realized how difficult it was to do this when my youngest became enthralled with the 90s TV show “X Files.” After a show was over, he would ask questions seeking the truth: “Was President Kennedy shot?” “Are there extraterrestrial beings on earth?” They wove history and fantasy together so tightly that I needed to watch the show with him so that we could check in on what was what, as each episode unfolded.I learned how easy it is for visual media to make unreality look very real.

Learning how to discern the truth is not a new problem. There have been some great storytellers in my family. They had rich imaginations, were charming, knew what people wanted to hear and understood the cadence of drama that kept chil­ dren spell bound. But for two of those storytellers, something went strangely off kilter. For one, the problem seemed to be caused by drinking too much. For another, it appeared that a cruel streak kept poking through.

Fiction or Non-Fiction / Truth or Lie?

It wasn’t until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith that I understood what went wrong. The main character is a child struggling with the stories her charming but drunken father tells her and the imaginative stories she writes. Why do her father’s stories sound like lies? Is she lying when she writes? Her teacher tells her that she needs to tell the truth exactly as it happened and write the story as she thinks it should have happened. That way she will know both what is factually true and what is art – a more subjective truth. She realizes that her father no longer knows the difference be­ tween the two. Neither did those two great storytellers I knew. No longer knowing the difference between two kinds of truth – fiction and non-fiction – their actions were no longer in sync with day to day reality. Their lives appeared to be a lie.

Rev. Gail Seavey, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville

Live with Integrity

I, too, have a rich imagination and need to faithfully discern the difference between the objective truth and the power of story. As long as I know which is which, I can live with integrity. That discernment is a practice that allows me to walk with balance in the day-to-day world. In this way, the quest for truth is one of my sacraments.

Gail Seavey, Lead  Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville

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“The Best Book is Your Own Story.”
Deborah Wilbrink

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