Truth In Memoir

Linda Strader

Our Guest Blogger today has written a memoir about firefighting with the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains near Tucson, AZ. Today, she addresses the topic of truth in memoir. 


Who knew that I’d be writing a multitude of articles about memoirs at this time in my life? Who knew my memoir would actually find a publisher! Ten years ago if someone had predicted I would write a memoir, I would have laughed at them. I was not a writer!

However, for a multitude of reasons, I wrote my memoir, not knowing about memoir writing rules, or guidelines…in fact, not knowing how to write a story—period.

“Isn’t a ‘story’ fiction?” you may ask. It may seem like a no-brainer, but based on my experiences, many memoir writers don’t understand that a memoir is not much different from a novel (fiction). Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t understand that either at first. However, there is one major difference: a memoir is true. Fiction is, well, not-true.

Of course, fiction can be based on a true event, but when does nonfiction become fiction?

This is where much confusion abounds. Are you like me and expect a memoir to be true? Or are you okay with it being partially true, and assume that the author probably added some embellishments? Would knowing that the author embellished critical components of the story upset you? What if you thought the whole time you were reading the book that it was all true and really happened the way the author portrayed the events, only to find out later you’d been duped? That only bits and pieces were true, and the rest had been fabricated to make the story more interesting? Would you be angry? I would be. That’s fiction, not nonfiction.

This has actually happened. When author James Frey couldn’t sell his semi-fictional book, A Million Little Pieces, he republished it as a memoir. Voila! It became a best seller…until he got caught. Millions of readers were furious! Oprah Winfrey grilled him on her show and removed him from her book club, escalating the uproar. The controversy behind his deception lingers today.

Okay, so maybe your intention is not to do what Mr. Frey did, but what about tweaking events in your memoir to make it more interesting? Is that acceptable? To make a memoir read like a novel, dialog sure helps. How do you handle dialog, when obviously you can’t remember everything that was said verbatim? Is it acceptable to ad-lib? These are all good questions.

Naturally, you can’t remember everything, and when you write based on memory, there will be discrepancies. What I’m talking about is fabricating events, or the severity of events, in an attempt to make it a better story. I completely agree with The Great Courses’ instructor of Writing Creative Nonfiction, Dr. Tilar J. Mazzeo, Ph.D., that “making stuff up” in order for the story to be more interesting is wrong. As for dialog, of course, you won’t remember every word. But my guess is you remember how that conversation made you feel, and how you reacted. That is more important than the words themselves.

This is how I see it: if you have a good story and work hard at writing it well and creatively, you don’t need to fabricate anything to make it more interesting. I read this not too long ago: the more personal and honest the memoir, the more universal it becomes. The more universal the memoir is, the more people can relate to it. How simple is that?

Bio:  Originally from Syracuse, New York, Ms. Strader moved to Prescott, Arizona with her family in 1972. In 1976, she became one of the first women on a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

Summers of Fire: A Memoir of Adventure, Love and Courage is her first book, released on May 1st, 2018 by Bedazzled Ink Publishing. She is working on a prequel.

In addition to writing, Ms. Strader is a landscape architect, certified arborist, and watercolor artist. She currently lives in the same area where her Forest Service career began.

Twitter: @desertplantlove


  1. That's pretty much how I feel about memoir, though I do think humor writers have a bit more leeway to jazz up the humor.


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