The client held up a few pages of her draft memoir. Red ink filled the margins, and there were lots of underlined phrases and exclamation points.
“My sister,” she said. “She’s seven years older, so I asked her to take a look. But I didn’t expect her to change my facts!”
Big Sister changed the year Grandpa lost his arm in the tractor mishap, the phrase Uncle Roy repeated every time he came home drunk, the color of the linoleum on the kitchen floor, and other details.
“How can I call myself a writer,” the client said, “when I can’t even get my facts straight?”
I did a bit of research and found that Sister was right, so I made these changes. But I also reassured my client that in many ways, these details are the least important and interesting part of her life story.
Our lives are shaped by who, what, when, and where. Facts ground us in a story, but are not the story itself. They are only moderately interesting—the jumping off points, the planks in the dock on the water. We all have them. They help us figure out where we are.
Readers, however, yearn for what’s submerged at the bottom of the lake, waiting to be found—the “why” and the “then what happened?” If the big unknown is intriguing, we jump. And where we end up is where the story lies.
If Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, then we need to know that. Saying that it happened in 1998 or 2000 diminishes the story. It’s a rotting plank.
But getting these things straight is just the beginning, the bare minimum. Big Sister has a story—we all do—but it’s not the one my client can tell. And it might not be the one that catches the interest of readers.