Two basic concerns lie behind the question. First, the people are worried about faulty memories – their own or particularly those of elderly relatives they may interview. Do they remember correctly? Second, the further one moves back in time the more likely it is that there are gaps in the factual record of the person or people they are writing about. What if you can’t find the facts?
The firestorms over the false memoir James Frey created and fictional journalism of people like Jayson Blair demonstrate that almost no one thinks it’s okay to simply make things up.
“But when I can’t get at the facts, can I speculate about what happened?” asked a gentleman at a seminar we recently presented. That’s a trickier question.
I think the answer ultimately comes down to the effort you’ve made to learn as much as you can. If you are relying primarily on interviews, have you talked to everyone you can who might help set the record straight? Have you done research to fill in the gaps? Examining the social history of the time and place you’re writing about can give you insights into how people like the one you are writing about lived. Local historical societies can be particularly helpful. But no matter what you do, you probably won’t answer every question you wish you could have.
When you have done as much as you think you can, you have to speculate to tell your story. That’s what historians do. They learn as much as they can from the factual record, then draw a conclusion about what happened.
Journalist, critic and fiction writer Tom Bissell put it well when he said, “What the memoirist [or family historian] owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”
For more from Bissell and an interesting discussion of Honesty in Memoir visit Richard Gilbert’s blog Narrative.