“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.”

It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after.

Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.”

In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of losing my husband in the Vietnam War, there is a scene in the month of May at the cemetery where I write, “It was so hot that my uncle, wearing a dark wool suit, passed out from heat exhaustion.” My brother recalls the day as cold. “It was so cold that I thought it was February,” he said. The weather may or may not be a crucial element in your story, but this is a good example of how differently two people can remember the same point in time. I have no doubt that my brother remembers the day as cold for reasons other than the weather. His emotional truth is that it was cold.

Perl and Swartz would explain this as an example of the storm of controversy that rages in any writers’ conference on creative nonfiction – the battle between telling emotional truth and factual truth. What matters is the story that is being written. In stories of childhood and coming of age, emotional truth is the goal; in investigative journalism, factual truth is essential. (I do have a photograph that shows the trees in full bloom during that funeral!)


If we are writing memoir, we are aiming for truth, but for a different reason than presenting what is true for someone else, as in literary journalism or writing biography. In memoir and personal essays we are in search of ourselves; the “I” that was in the past and the “I” that is now.

Memoirist Abigail Thomas says in Thinking About Memoir: “Writing is the way I ground myself, and it’s what keeps me sane. Writing is the way I try and make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens – even though I know that why is a distraction, and meaning you have to cobble together yourself…Truth is what I’m ultimately after, truth or clarity. I think that’s what we’re all after, truth, … and I write nonfiction because you can’t get away with anything when it’s just you and the page. No half-truths, no cosmetics. What would be the point? …Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”

When we sit down in our “witness stand” in front of the blank page, the best that we can do is to present our best evidence, selecting what we need, omitting information that does not serve a particular moment, striving to share that interiority of feeling that lets the reader in and allows you to share your truth.