By Tamim Ansary
The border between memoir and history has blurred for me, and I speak from experience. I’ve written two memoirs and two histories and I’m working on one more of each.
At one level, I suppose it’s obvious. A memoir is the story of one life–it’s history writ small. But every life is interwoven with many others, and history tells the story of those interactions: it’s the sum of many memoirs, interweaving. History is memoir writ large.
I see a parallel beyond that truism, however, and it has to do with story. A fellow once complimented me on a memoir I had written: “I’m just amazed you can remember all that stuff!” It struck me that he thought the hard part was “remembering all that stuff”; the rest, presumably, was just transcription. I hear a glimmer of the same idea when people marvel at the plethora of facts packed into one of my histories: “You must have done such a lot research!”
Well, I did do a lot of research for the histories, and I did do a lot of remembering for the memoirs; both forms, after all, are collections of facts about stuff that really happened. What’s more, the facts must be true. Writers who get that part wrong might as well hang up their laptops.
But assembling true facts is only step one. The real challenge in writing a history or a memoir is finding the throughline. In both forms, I think, the writer’s ultimate mission is to tell a story. And the crucial point is—the story must be true, and that’s not a given, once you’ve got all the facts right. The truth of the story lies somewhere beyond the mere facts. It situated out there where the meanings are. To me, writing a nonfiction memoir or a history represents, even celebrates, a conviction that the story is real, it’s there. You don’t create it, you discover it; you don’t impose a story upon the facts, you reveal it through the facts. Altering or adding “facts” to make “a better story” undercuts the whole point of the enterprise. Writing in either of these forms without believing in the realness of the story makes the writer like a priest who administers sacraments without believing in God.
There is one further complication. A history must be true, but it can never constitute The Truth. After all, once The Truth has been told, what remains to be said? But when it comes to history—the history of anything really: a world, a country, a single life—the conversation can never be exhausted. I smile when I remember telling my seven-year-old daughter that I was going to write a history of the world. “Daddy,” she said, scrunching her nose up in puzzlement, “didn’t they already write that one?”
Yes, they did, honey. We did that one. And we’ll do it again; and we’ll strive to make it true; and then we’ll tell it again—and again—because there is always more truth there to be discovered. That’s the glorious thing about writing nonfiction history and memoir. There’s always more truth there to be discovered.