Memoir Writing Prompts: Three Views of Memoir and Truth, Part 1

by Matilda Butler on April 26, 2011

Writing Prompt LogoPost #86 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Writing Prompts: Three Views of Memoir and Truth

memoir writing prompts, memoir, journaling, memoir writing“I must have been three when Ana Maria asked, ‘How old is your mother?’ I knew about numbers and so gave this a lot of thought. Even now I remember thinking, ‘I’m three and that is a little number. Mom is a much bigger number.’ So, after some delay, I responded, ‘She’s 100.’

“Then Ana Maria said, ‘Well, how old is your dad.’ Again, I thought carefully about this. Dad was older than Mom so I figured the number had to be bigger than 100. I replied, rather proudly, ‘He’s 1000.’”

This reminiscence came to light in a recent conversation with my son — 33 years after his conversation with Ana Maria, the wonderful Guatemalan woman who took care of him when he was small. Ana Maria’s husband was getting his Ph.D. at Stanford and had taken a few classes with my husband, a fact we didn’t know when we interviewed Ana Maria to be Will’s child care provider but one that helped to cement our decision.

A lifetime of events has turned Ana Maria into a close friend decades after we took our son to her apartment in Escondido Village, married student housing at Stanford University. She even came back from Guatemala to help Will celebrate his 21st birthday. But that’s not the point of this story. For I want to use three-year-old Will’s conversation to illustrate a point about truth telling in memoir.

Will’s remembrance highlights an aspect of truth that usually isn’t discussed. We grow, we change. We know more than we used to know. When we tell — or write — about a time earlier in our life, we bring our acquired wisdom to that telling. And we should.

At the age of three, Will thought he was telling Ana Maria the truth — his mother was 100 and his father was 1000. Looking back, he knows that he told the truth limited by his knowledge at the time. When we write memoir, we write the truth. We must write the truth. We need to dig inside our memories to arrive at truth that is at our core.

But there is never a complete truth. The truth we tell will always be influenced by what we know, or can remember. A year after we write a memoir, we may grow in our own understanding. We may realize that a mother is really 36 instead of 100 and that a father is 41 rather than 1000 or that your mother was treated for a mental disease when you were four and that she didn’t willingly desert you. All we can do is to carefully examine our memories, our assumptions and apply our current state of knowledge and wisdom to these memories and assumptions and go ahead and tell our stories, even if the telling is imperfect.

Kendra and I like to make reference to Michael Masterson’s book Ready, Fire, Aim. Don’t wait until you know everything there is to know. Even in the process of writing — of firing — you will learn more, gain more insights. Go ahead and “fire.” Write. Write. Write. The “aim” will come the more you write.

MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT:

1. Think of a childhood memory. It might be easiest if you choose a story that has been told and retold within your family for years. Then call or email other family members and ask them to recite the story. Who is telling the truth? Probably everyone. It is just that each person tells the story from his or her perspective and knowledge base at the time of the story.

2. Analyze the different versions of the story. Which facts agree. Which ones are unique? What is the relationship of the person with the unique perspective to the story? See if you can explain why some versions disagree. What does this tell you about truth and memoir?





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