One of the greatest challenges of writing memoir is the choppiness of memory. You might have a strong image of your mother cooking breakfast, but you can’t connect it with a particular event. You might remember that you had measles, but you can’t recall the details of the experience.
People often ask if it’s okay to make things up to fill in the gaps. The answer is no. One of the most basic and important tenets of memoir is that it’s the truth – your truth. It’s the truth of what you carry with you from your past. The minute you veer away from that – add a straw hat or make up a location or throw in a line of dialogue that you don’t really recall – you are breaking your pact with your reader, and with yourself. Memoir comes from your life. If you want to embellish, call it fiction.
There are ways to work with the slippery realities of memory. Often my starting point is a clear but isolated image – like a tiny movie that begins and ends abruptly. I believe it’s there for a reason; it holds some significance. So I describe the image: my mother is here, my brothers are there, the weather is warm, the wind is blowing through the window, I have a sore throat.
I’ve found that through the process of writing, more memories emerge. When we decided to write our book, one of my biggest fears was that I didn’t remember enough. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill my section with stories. But by sitting down and starting with the few distinct memories I had, other moments resurfaced, details unfolded, and new truths were revealed. It was like finding buried treasure, and I was finally able to tell the story I wanted to tell.