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30 January 2020

Cathy Rentzenbrink on Truth and Memory

Cathy Rentzenbrink
by Cathy Rentzenbrink Writing Tips

Cathy Rentzenbrink is the tutor of our online Writing a Memoir course – and is now also to teach a brand new four-day intensive memoir-writing course at our London offices this April (now open for applications). Cathy is the author of The Last Act of Lovewhich was a Sunday Times bestseller and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize. She followed it with A Manual for Heartache – and her next book, Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books, will be published later this year. 

Here Cathy talks about the memoirist’s struggle with truth and memory in life-writing …

When you’re planning and writing a memoir, you’ll soon find yourself wrestling with some important questions about truth – the kind of questions that can potentially make you anxious and which can even block your writing process completely:

  • Can we trust our memories?
  • How important is it that we tell the truth?
  • What do we do when we can’t remember bits of the story?

When considering all of this in relation to my work, I find myself turning to that familiar old expression, ‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’

Here’s what I mean:

  • The truth: If we’re going to the effort of writing a whole book then we owe it to ourselves and others to aim for the truth.
  • The whole truth: Actually we can’t tell the whole truth even if we try our very best to do so. Imagine telling a friend the story of what has happened to you so far this week. Even with only a few days to cover, you’d have to make editorial decisions about what to leave out and what to focus on. You might make your decisions because of not having enough time and space, or because you don’t want to be boring, or because there are things you want to keep to yourself. It’s fine to not tell the whole truth. You don’t have to be completist. A memoir isn’t a whole life, but an aspect or an episode of a life. With life-writing you will need to figure out what parts belong in your story what should be set aside.
  • Nothing but the truth: This is a good aim to have – and I’d recommend it as the way forward for you. Don’t tell lies. Don’t try to make yourself seem better than you were – that’s something that always stands out a mile. Honesty is of primary importance to having a strong voice in memoir. When I don’t like the voice in a memoir I’m reading, it’s often because I suspect the author is holding back. There have been famous cases where memoirs have turned out to be fabricated so it’s worth bearing in mind that the truth usually surfaces in the end. We have a responsibility to represent ourselves and other people accurately.

What do you do when you can’t remember? If your memory is sketchy then you can say so. Memory does erode with time and also goes haywire during trauma. Lots of memoirs include reflections on the nature of memory that are interesting in themselves (though you don’t want too many of them).

Using other sources to stimulate memories: It’s fine to use other sources (e.g. research and other people’s recollections) to stimulate memories and add colour and detail to your work. Photographs, newspaper clippings, boxes of family documents can all be helpful.

As memoirists we should always do our best to write the truth – and to represent the people, places and things in our past and our lives as accurately and carefully as we can. But the truth is always subjective – my truth is different to yours. That’s where story is born – each of us has our own truth and our own unique story to tell.

If you’re looking to turn your real life experiences into a compelling narrative take a look at Cathy Rentezenbrink’s memoir courses: our six-week online Writing a Memoir course – and the brand new four-day intensive memoir-writing course at our London offices this April (now open for applications).

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