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Tell it Slant

by Deb McLeod

Tell the truth but tell it slant. – Emily Dickenson

Many of my private clients are writing memoir. All of them have heard of James Frey and Greg Mortenson and many of them have expressed concern as they try to claim their story. They are so intent on getting it right, they’re draining the juice right out of it.

I used to spend time soothing fears by talking about emotional truth. The truer truth of a life or a story. Sure, you have to gather the facts. Sure, you have to pay homage to the dialogue as best you can. But no one lives a life with a camcorder permanently on record.

The trouble comes because there’s a line between truth and fiction that isn’t defined, yet should not be crossed if you’re writing memoir. I say cross it for the story if you need to, just acknowledge that fact.

I think that’s really what people want in a memoir. That the facts are as we remember them and there’s a simple acknowledgment by the author that the story is one that is true to the best of the author’s memory. If characters have been blended into one or changed, the author merely needs to tell us that.

I advise my clients to put that acknowledgement in a preface if they must or to be more artful and actually write the truth, perhaps as something like this:

I grew up between Niagara Falls and Buffalo in western New York State. Everyone’s heard of the snow in Buffalo, like they’ve heard of the rain in Portland. There was snow, but more than that, there were ceaseless clouds, every day. Overcast gray. Gunmetal, ash, dusky, mousy, oyster-colored, lead and smoky stone that hid the sun and sat low on my forehead every single day of every single year I lived there.

Now I live in big sky territory and life here couldn’t be more different. A few years ago I was back east, back home. But the sky was blue. The same blue it is here in Denver. Not big blue, there are too many trees and buildings for that, but clear and blue and sunny. Was it really that endlessly dark when I was young? Or does it merely say something about me that that’s what I remember?

Now I’m free to talk about the endless gloom of suburban childhood with working parents and the absence of a creative outlet. Of depression, perhaps, and few friends. All contained within the phrase that the clouds sat low on my forehead, every single day.

What about this for an example of my blending friends into one?

Of all the friends I had, Laurie is the only one that stands out. There was Peggy and Wendy and other Lori and Patty McDee. Earlier than that, there was Linda and Patsy, Sandy and Suzanne. But they were the same girl, really. The second girl. The one I’d play with if Laurie wasn’t home. Let’s call those second girls Missy and leave it at that. Missy was those girls that filled in the time, who played Barbie with me or jax or hopscotch, or later, who sang songs with me as we smoked leaning against the deadend sign on the next street over.
Now I’m free to have Missy as a character and my reader knows what I mean.

I really wanted to illustrate this point to my clients so I came up with an exercise for my writing circles about truth in memoir. I accumulated the facts about an incident that happened as I was leaving the library.

I made a list of those facts:

  • Saw a five year old girl alone in the car parked next to mine in the parking lot.
  • Talked to the librarian who called the head librarian who was going to call the police but wanted to see for herself.
  • The mother went out of the library in front of us and went to her car.
  • Knocked on the window to say hi, then folded clothes from a box in the trunk before she got into the car or opened the door or let the girl out.
  • The librarian said: “That’s it, then” and left me on the sidewalk.
  • The mother stared at me as I drove out of the parking lot.
  • I dreamt about the little girl.

I wanted to show my memoir clients how I could write this scene three different ways with three different slants: all true, all different, all acceptable. I wanted them to compare the three and talk about the results.

So I wrote:

A straight scene with just the facts, ma’am. Dull and flat, we all agreed. Kind of what they were turning into me for homework. 😉

One with a voice – I tried to be funny about a situation that wasn’t funny. This worked better simply because it had a voice.

One that was the truest of them all. Interesting to note that this version contained the least amount of the “facts” and was more about me than any of them. We all agreed that this one was the best.

I think that’s what a memoir captures. The emotional truth of a segment of the memoirist’s life. The universal truth the reader can identify with.

So don’t worry about tape recorder true. Decide what your slant is and write it from there. If you have to, tell us you changed things or better yet, just work it into the narrative.

Note: This article was first published in Pikes Peak Writers Blog on February 29, 2013