By now, everyone is familiar with the James Frey fiasco of 2007:
Frey, a bestselling memoirist, was outed for making up many of the
details in A Million Little Pieces, the supposedly true
account of his experiences during treatment for alcohol and drug
addiction. Most notably, Frey claimed to have spent 87 days in jail
when he was actually only incarcerated for several hours. In a media
frenzy, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and CNN directly confronted Frey,
and national newspapers and magazines devoured him. For memoirists,
this continues to beg the question: When memory can be murky and
embellishment is part of our culture, how can we remain true to our
stories while providing readers with a satisfying literary experience?
First, remember the most common—and useful—piece of writing advice: Show, don’t tell.
Sensory details help imbue even the most common of scenes with new
meaning. For example, compare the following versions of the same scene:
“I took the bus to school on the first day. I was only seven and
scared to talk to anyone in the new town. It seemed like all the other
kids had known each other since birth, so I sat there quietly until we
pulled up to the school.”
“My mother pressed my favorite Superman lunchbox into my hands as
she kissed me goodbye in front of the bus. Two boys with sandy brown
hair were watching through a cloudy window, smirking. Embarrassed, I
stumbled into the bus without looking back and took the first empty
seat I saw. I tried to catch someone’s—anyone’s—eye, but the other kids
were laughing, playing Uno cards. They didn’t even glance at me. The
whole ride to school, I pressed up against the window, the backs of my
legs sweating against the vinyl seats.”
The second version of this scene is set apart by its details:
Superman lunchbox, Uno cards, sandy brown hair, vinyl seats, etc.
Readers will remember this.
Now, that said, don’t overwhelm minor scenes with detail.
Before spending time dressing up a scene, so to speak, ask yourself if
that scene is significant to your story as a whole. Is it a call to a
pizza place? Just say that. But did that call lead to a sequence of
events no one could have predicted—like crashing your car en route to
the pizza joint, breaking your leg, and meeting your future wife at the
hospital? Spend a little more time on it.
But… don’t make up anything. There’s a difference
between waxing poetic for a paragraph about what that first touch by
your future wife felt like and making up that first meeting entirely.
Know when (and what) to reveal and when (and what) to hold back, and
your readers will beg to spend a little more time in your world.
Recommended memoir reading: The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls