“How Much of a Memoir Should Be True?” by Linda Gray Sexton

Hello readers! We have decided to introduce authors via guest posts. Writers are good in expressing themselves and it’s worth reading their thoughts and views on issues related to the writing world. We are posting interviews from the Memoirs/Biography genre this month and we have Linda Gray Sexton, the daughter of Anne Sexton sharing her thoughts on “How Much of a Memoir Should Be True?”. We hope you enjoy reading her guest post and we welcome you to share your opinions below.

Linda Gray Sexton

Linda Gray Sexton, author of Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians

I have no doubt that every part of a memoir should be true.  That is what differentiates it from fiction, a genre in which every word is drawn from the author’s imagination.  And perhaps we also distinguish memoir from autobiography because, as we experience this form of literature today, it is not a simple accounting of facts, but rather a story drawn from one’s emotions and the life they reflect, susceptible to wanderings and flashbacks and other thematic intertwinings.


How does a writer determine what is “true?”  Truth is subjective for us all and we can only tell our own stories with the best sense of integrity we have.  Sometimes the truth can be softened by grace and gratitude and a sense of compassion for all those involved.  Nothing is so hard on family and friends as the personal exposure a memoir can bring when it is published.


In my second memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, a person central to the story took exception to a small detail and asked that I change it in a minor way.  Because I didn’t really “need” it in order to portray that part of my life, I did delete it while the book was still a manuscript.  I didn’t reinvent anything, I just removed one small part of what was, in fact, a tiny bit of my truth.  I felt the compromise was actually no compromise at all.  I also used a pseudonym for this person, as requested, because again I did not feel it mattered in any intrinsic way to my candor or honesty.  I have never changed a place or a date, or consolidated scenes and events.


On the other hand, there was one person who was very dear to me, who did object to many of the aspects of the memoir, feeling misunderstood and angry.  Because I saw no way to soften this without compromising the facts and emotions with which the memoir dealt, I suggested that there are many perspectives from which a story can be told: just as two people can enter the same room from different doors and see that room in entirely different ways, so can two people disagree about what actually occurred.  It was my story and I felt entitled to tell it my way.  I left everything intact and simply dealt with the anger aroused.  Sometimes memoir hurts those involved, but because I believed the book would reach out in an important way to others beyond family and friends, I felt certain enough to continue.


My sons and sister were also extremely affected by Half in Love.  I did something I believe is unusual in the genre: I invited them to come sit with me and talk about how my depression and suicide attempts had made them feel.  I tape-recorded these conversations so that later on, while writing the memoir, I would be able to refer back to them and, if necessary, quote accurately from them.  I did end up quoting verbatim from these sessions, and I also gave them galleys of the book early on, so that they could perhaps be better prepared for what they, or others, would read.  I changed nothing in galley, even after they offered their comments.


With Searching for Mercy Street the situation was also intense.  My mother’s sister and her daughters violently objected to what I had written, in particular with my portrait of their father, believing that what I had written was biased and false. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, they accused me of lying in order to bring myself a wider audience and acquire a warped sort of fame.  I refused to respond either in person or in print.


Because it does not deal with painful family secrets in any profound manner, Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians aroused no animosity from anyone.  For this, I am grateful.  It was hard enough to cope with the first two times around.


In the end, a memoir is your own story, written from your own perspective, and ultimately is nothing more than that.  When family members or friends contest what I have created, I simply suggest to them that they write a book from their viewpoint. Ultimately, I believe everyone is entitled to his own truths, including the author, whether others like it—or not.


8 thoughts on ““How Much of a Memoir Should Be True?” by Linda Gray Sexton

  1. Linda, I really enjoyed this post. As I near the finish line to publishing my memoir about my childhood abuse, I try to prepare myself for the outcome. My objective all along has been to reach other adult survivors who’ve carried shame from keeping their abuse secret. I never used real names (feeling nothing would be achieved by “outing” my abusers or innocent bystanders), but still, I know many will recognize themselves and may not be happy with the invasion. Your experience puts things into perspective for me and gives me a dose of strength. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful interview Linda! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well put, Linda. Looking forward to reading your memoirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A reasoned and eloquent piece on memoir-writing.
    Writing a memoir is somewhat like life: it’s hard to go through it without offending someone along the way. And yet, it’s those conflicts and painful events that lead to learning and growth for the writer and ultimately the reader. Linda has shared valuable guidelines from her own experience. Thank you both for this, and my best wishes to you.

    Liked by 1 person

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