The Business of Remembering

We both loved Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, but we had the very same question when we finished it, "How could Walls possibly remember all those details of her childhood so long after the fact?" But in thinking about it further, the bigger questions might be, "Does it really matter? Do you have to have 20/20 memory to write a memoir?"

Self-publishing has given writers the opportunity to see their memoirs realized in book form – whether it's for family and friends only, or for the trade market. After years of meticulous note-taking and diary-writing, one of our authors, Robert Krell, published his Holocaust memoir, Memoiries: Sounds from Silence. Krell had hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes to compile his story in detail, with very few gaps. But that's rarely the case for writers. So, should that stop you from penning your autobiography?

Definitely not. Even Walls, in her follow-up book about her grandmother, Half Broke Horses, talks about drawing "on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing." She does refer to this book as a novel, but still, in discussing historical accuracy, she talks about crafting the book through "oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller's traditional liberties."

These "storyteller's traditional liberties" are what readers have come to accept in memoirs and autobiographies. We can't expect everyone to remember, or to be able to piece together, every detail of their distant pasts, but we do appreciate a story that is well told, with feeling and with meaning. Mark Twain once wrote, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." When it comes to memoirs, that would be taking it a bit far. Instead, let's just say: never let imperfect memory get in the way of telling your story.

For some memoir-writing inspiration, check out 5 Ways to Start Your Memoir on the Right Foot and 31 Memoirs You Have to Read.