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Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
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Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  660 ratings  ·  88 reviews
An indispensable book by writers who have experienced firsthand the rewards and challenges of crafting a memoir


Anyone undertaking the project of writing a memoir knows that the events, memories, and emotions of the past often resist the orderly structure of a book. Inventing the Truth offers wisdom from nine notable memoirists about their process (Ian Frazier searched th
Paperback, Revised & Expanded, 240 pages
Published May 20th 1998 by Mariner Books (first published 1987)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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Nov 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you're looking for tips on writing a memoir, or just enjoy memoirs in general and want to read what may be behind some, this is the book! I really enjoyed all of the essays here included, I am always reading about memoir writing, its really one of my pastimes, and this will be included in my recommendations if anyone asks me over dinner for a good book on memoirs. ...more
May 12, 2008 rated it it was ok
There are a few gems here -- the latter part of Annie Dillard's "To Fashion a Text" and Toni Morrison's excellent guide to the history of African American memoir: "The Site of Memory." The bibliography is also fascinating, to see what writers were reading as they wrote their memoirs. Otherwise, this book hasn't quite made the transition from spoken presentations to published essays, and the product is neither solid craft advice nor strong personal essay. ...more
Sharon Barrow Wilfong
In this anthology of writers' memoirs, we meet many different sort of writers, journalists, novelists, professors at universities who teach all sorts of things not necessarily related to writing but have all written a memoir of some type or other.

Each writer discusses why they wrote from the angle they chose. Russell Bake decided to narrow his memoir to his relationship with his mother and her impact on his life. This meant leaving out most of his life, but allowed a straight line to take the re
Sep 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, ebooks
The sensationalism of TV talk show in the late 1980's brought a shift in autobiography that would create a new "memoir genre". The national fascination for featured topics relating to alcohol/drug dependency, depression/emotional disorders, attempted suicide, abuse/co-dependency, obesity/eating disorders, etc. Many authors of these memoirs bashed their parents, and/or centered on themes of further negativity, shame, victimhood, self-indulgence. Many of these memoirs would become international be ...more
Jan 13, 2013 rated it liked it
More inspiring than actually helpful, INVENTING THE TRUTH is a collection of memoirs on writing memoirs. This INCEPTION-like premise works, not because it's a particularly interesting concept, but because the book's editor, William Zinsser, chose a group of extremely articulate and engaging writers for this compilation, writers who could discuss the gradual dehydration of paint and still make it sound compelling. The book is a collection of interviews, essays and speeches; most of the material i ...more
Apr 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, sweet-16-2012
I was enticed by the title, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, because I have been skeptical about the veracity of many of the memoirs I have read and felt that they contained considerable “invention”. As I read Zinsser on the unreliability of memory and Baker on the possibility that accuracy does not equal truth and even Dillard on the danger of using memories in a memoir, I have come to accept and embrace the proposition that memoir has to do with truth which is not synonymous w ...more
Apr 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Lots of wonderful insight on the process of writing memoirs. My favourite excerpt below from Toni Morrison:

"You know, they straightened out the Mississippi in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding, but remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were
May 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I like to write down quotes from books I like, and with this book, I wrote down so many quotes, I just about copied the whole book. One of my favorite essays was from Toni Morrison, and she wrote: "If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic." ...more
Jul 06, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: writing, essays
Henry David Thoreau wrote 7 different drafts of Walden in 8 years. He finally pieced together what Margaret Fuller called the "mosaic" method, a book that strikes as casual and chatty.

Annie Dillard's essay "To Fashion a Text" is the best. She says not to write a memoir. Rather write about what you are left with after years of thinking about it. Her advice is "to fashion a text. Don't hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. . . . The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them."

Jan 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009-read
Read sometime between 2008 and 2010. Owned a copy, reread some parts before donating in 2020.
I was really interested in how Angela’s Ashes came to be, and in Henry Louis Gates’ process writing Colored People (which I have since read). Reading Toni Morrison makes me want to revisit her work.
These were originally talks - I would’ve enjoyed going to them and hearing the authors.
Sep 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
I love Zinsser. I love his writing, his thought process and his mind. His writing (included in this anthology) is planted on earth, graspable. He's an awesome editor as shown in this work. The collected essays deal with the many considerations inherent in memoir. This anthology includes the work of Dillard, Baker, Kazin, Morrison and Thomas. Dillard suggests that the re-writing of a memory will implant the edited version in the mind of its maker (71). Zinsser says, "Memoir is a window into a lif ...more
Tony Page
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
William Zinsser declares in his introduction 'this is the age of the memoir'. He reports on a project begun in 1986 that produced this fascinting compilation from nine famous memoir writers describing their craft in their own words. I couldn't put the book down. The following short paragraphs summarise what I took away.

When the life history in your mind has not been critically analysed, and when the painful parts tend to grow and overwhelm the good bits, then the plot that guides your life is no
Jun 02, 2015 rated it liked it
This collection of essays and Q & A's with several well-known memoir writers isn't a how-to but more a "how I did it." As a writer who has discovered how shockingly difficult it is to get a grasp around a memoir theme, I hoped some of these authors would throw me a lifeline.

My biggest takeaways from the book were that it is normal to realize you cannot rely on memory alone in reconstructing one's past; that focusing on a period of time in one's life will help narrow down the scope and angle, an
George Ilsley
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An excellent anthology for writers or those interested in the creative process. Of course, some essays resonate more than others. I particularly enjoyed the piece by Henry Louis Gates. Worth reading and re-reading.
This is not (directly) a "how to write memoir" book, but in a way it is: because through their stories the writers demonstrate that there are many paths towards inventing the truth, and inventing your own path may be necessary to your own true story.
Scott J Pearson
Writing a memoir, a very personal task, involves an individualized process that is specific to each author. This book contains insights from ten authors of meaningful memoirs. Some of their advice conflicts; at other times, their process is so grounded in history that it can never be replicated. As such, this work is less of a how-to book and more of an inspirational book to aid a budding writer’s self-confidence.

I have taken from this work the motif of distinguishing between an autobiography an
May 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
What I loved about this book is that it gave me other books to read or in many cases, re-read. I have read Baker, McCourt, Conway, Morrison,Kazan, and Simpson. I may reread some of their books. I have not read Gates or Frazier or Dillard. How can I have missed reading The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? I better make up for that soon. The motivation for writing memoirs varies. I was delighted with Frazier's coming across boxes of letters, documents, and stuff when cleaning out his parents' home after t ...more
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Frankly, I was surprised what a quick read this was, because the stories were so interesting, until I got to Toni Morrison, who bored me to tears until the last pages, when she answered a question, and talked like a human being instead of an encyclopedia.
Ian Frazier wrote the most interesting story of how he wrote his family history, and I fell in love with his way of writing, but I'm just not interested in his subject. I'm bored with extensive family trees. Sorry, it's just not my thing. I mar
Anson Cassel Mills
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
The 1987 edition of Inventing the Truth originated in the winter of 1986 as a series of talks sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club at the New York Public Library. A shadow of its predecessor, Extraordinary Lives (1986), this slender book has as its theme, reminiscences about writing memoirs. Although novelist Toni Morrison and medical writer Lewis Thomas veer off to a degree from this theme, all the essays are valuable as examples of good writing. There is no index, but the volume concludes w ...more
Val Frost
Jul 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A book I'm already feigning to re-read! Full of a wonderful selection of contributors with their own experiences, identities, and traumas to lend perspective to. It was great to get a detailed account of their research methods both inter-personally and factually. The stories drew a web between guilt, memory, and, of course, writing that I had never connected before.

I will continue to reflect on how, and if, guilt indicates narcissism and of the transformative nature, for better or worse, of mem
Margaret Adams
Another book read for a class. Inventing the Truth is a collection of interviews with writers about their experiences writing memoir. The best by far was Jill Kee Conway's "Points of Departure." Otherwise, more like a collection of promotional materials for books then a book itself. As someone whose life fantasies include reading the entire New York Times Sunday Book Review section every week, this is not entirely damning praise, but it still felt like the pyramid scheme of reading. ...more
Jun 21, 2019 rated it liked it
I read the intro and all the chapters by women. The only male contributor I read was Ian Frazier because I really enjoy some of his writing (his essay here was so so). Annie Dillard's "To Fashion a Text" and Toni Morrison's "The Site of Memory" were the definite standouts in this collection—read those if nothing else. ...more
I picked up this book hoping to be galvanized into starting back in on a memoir project that’s been stalled out for some time. That didn’t happen, mostly because I don’t think the aim of this book is to galvanize anyone. Still, it told me what I needed to hear, which was, over and over, some version of JUST WRITE IT. So, thanks, I guess?
Jun 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2021, about-writing
Outstanding collection of talks from well known memoir writers about writing memoir. Some I was familiar with, and some I want to get to know much better! My favorite part was a section at the end where the authors list memoirs that were important to them during their writing. I enjoyed every bit of this collection.
Jul 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing, collections, 2021
The first 2/3 of this book is amazing. I loved the stories and styles of writing of the various contributors. However, the last 3 or 4 essays were a snoozefest, which is really ironic because those essays were written by the most successful and well know writers in the book.

Overall, not my favourite Zinsser book, but did have some pretty enjoyable stories and writing tips.
Jul 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing
(I see now there is a newer and expanded version. I would recommend that one.)

This is an impressive collection of essays about writing, memory, the importance of narrative. My favorites were the last three, and all were excellent. Toni Morrison's explanation of the difference between facts and truth is worth the price of this book alone.
Sophie Cayeux
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. Very useful book on how different authors write their memoir/ biographies; how they structure their work to make it of universal relevance ; why they choose to focus on one particular theme; what is their personal view on what are memories.
Jul 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: katrina, memoir
I wouldn't say that this is a primer on writing memoirs but more illustrations of the selected authors. That may be more useful, though, because it brings it down to an interesting story level instead of dry drivel. I enjoyed the majority of the book ...more
Oct 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, on-writing
Very interesting and inspiring to read the reflections of the various writers on their own memoir-writing process and ideas about memoir. And the bibliography of recommended books by each of the contributors is a great resource!
Mar 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
What an enjoyable read this was. If you are a "writerly type" this collection of insight by some if the great memoir writers if the twentieth century will be quite satisfying to have on your bookshelf. ...more
Aug 04, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots of good stuff in here. Some authors were better than others (Annie Dillard & Toni Morrison 🧡) and for the most part it accomplished what it set out to do. I gave it 3 stars just because it isn’t a book that I’m THAT passionate about after reading. 3.5
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William Knowlton Zinsser is an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer. He has been a longtime contributor to leading magazines.

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