Can You Write a Good Memoir Without Fact-Checking? No!

Fact-check your memoir

Memoirs rely on the author’s memory, but we all are  aware that memory tends not to improve with age. It’s well-known that witnesses to the same crime report sometimes vastly different details. When you compare notes with siblings or childhood friends, you’re likely to discover that your accounts of the same incident differ significantly.

In many cases, you can’t know for sure whether your memory is correct. That bullying incident on the playground in fourth grade—did the other kid really say the words you remember? There’s no way to know for sure. That’s ok. Whether it happened exactly the way you remember is not as important as the fact that, in your mind, it did happen as you’re describing it. The incident’s effect on you is clear even if the truth about it isn’t.

But so many small facts can be checked. Today’s technology makes writing a memoir easier than it’s ever been in so many ways, and fact-checking is high on that list. Unlike in years past, there’s no need to sit in a library all day.

If you’re writing about the snowfall that occurred on your sixteenth birthday, take a minute to look up the weather report on that day. If you believe you attended your town’s bicentennial when you were 12 years old, some quick Googling will make sure you have the time line correct. If you describe walking down Center Street to your elementary school, make sure in your hometown it wasn’t spelled “Centre” Street, or it wasn’t Center Avenue. These are not unforgivable errors, but this is your book—why have any error that you can easily prevent?

Show your draft to family members for their input and recollections on the events you describe. Ask them to be particularly attentive to the facts you lay out. A parent, child or sibling may offer a perspective that you hadn’t considered or have some information that would add texture to your account.

Knowledge that we’ve carried with us all our lives can turn out to be our impressions rather than hard facts. Just check out everything you can.

Do Facts Matter in a Memoir?

Some people have diaries to source, but many memoir authors rely on their memories to tell the stories of their lives. You could be trying to remember details of events that took place decades ago. How much time and effort should you put into making sure you get your facts straight?

There’s no perfect answer to this, but here are some guidelines:

  • Interview friends and relatives to find out whether they recall events the same way you do. You’ll probably learn a lot from this exercise. Often, some of the key people have died by the time you write your memoir, so interview the players as soon as you think you may ever want to capture your life’s stories. And even if you don’t have a diary, they might have one to share with you.
  • Check pubic records for birth dates, weather conditions and other information that will help you put together a time line, get people’s ages accurate when you set them into a story and ensure that your descriptions make historical sense.
  • Research online accounts of the locations you talk about for clues about terrain, customs, business names and other details that may have faded from your memory.
  • Consider omitting anecdotes if you’re sketchy on the specifics.
  • On the other hand, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the near-perfect. If you can’t be sure of a few things, you still can tell the story.
  • Use asterisks to include footnotes with uncheckable details that someone you’ve interviewed disagrees with, such as how long the labor was or who caught the biggest fish on that summer trip.
  • Feel relatively free to add “color” to your story without being certain you’re presenting it factually. As long as you capture the true intent of what someone said, you don’t need the person’s exact wording; you still can put quotation marks around the words. You can set a story’s backdrop with detail about what you saw, smelled and heard without worrying that it all has to be exactly right—but it does have to convey the emotional impact in the way it did for you that day.

It’s impossible to remember every moment of your life, even the important ones. You’ll remember how you felt, and aim to make the reader feel the same way. But you can describe the surroundings without worrying about getting everything 100 percent accurate. Confirm any facts you can, ask others for input and write your story from your heart, because it’s your story to tell.