The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 1


This is the first in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

A memoir begins as a seed. It soon becomes a shoot, then a sapling, then a tree with many expansive branches that arches over an entire garden. How does it know to do this?

Tao [dau], n. way

The Tao, the way or the path, views life as part knowledge, duty, rationality, and part religion, morality, truth. It is not a fixed set of principles. In fact, it often employs riddles and paradoxes to convey its meaning. The Tao offers distinctive insight into many of life’s endeavors, including memoir writing.

Here’s the first Tao of Memoir Writing:

The complete truth is that truth is never complete. The unchanging truth is that truth is forever changing.

In our memoirs, we want to honor the emotional truth of events as we remember them while honoring the factual truth as well.

At the same time, we acknowledge that we are different people today than we were yesterday or last year, so today’s perception of yesterday’s or last year’s truth changes as well.

Seek the emotional truth of your story. You may remember the story differently than others, but readers understand this is your version of events. Most memoirists tell the story their way. Period. Others tell the story as they remember it and then state what someone else, usually a family member, says happened. The particular sequence of events, the location of events, the emotional states of those involved, even who was there are remembered differently by different people. Doubt this? Just reflect on any recent family gathering and you’ll see what I mean. All of these facts can change depending on the role of the person in the story and even the amount of time between the event and the writing.

Acknowledge, at least to yourself, that the memoir is your version. At the same time, don’t alter what you know to be the ‘truth’ to have a better story or to put you in a better light.

by Matilda Butler

4 responses to “The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 1

  1. Wonderful observation on memoir and Taoism. Artists are often both Taoists and Zen Buddhists because they embrace change and understand that truth is always in flux!

    • Hi Diana: Thanks for visiting this post and for your comment. I appreciate your take on writers as artists…and indeed they are. Truth in our art is subject to change as I realize on a daily basis.

  2. This is a good perspective on one of the most-often asked and discussed questions for memoirist. “Who owns the story?” is a questions that helps me clarify personal writing. Sometimes it’s me, and sometimes it belongs to someone else.

    On Mon, Aug 29, 2016 at 5:02 AM, Telling HerStories: The Broad View wrote:

    > Matilda Butler posted: “This is the first in a series of six posts by > Matilda Butler. A memoir begins as a seed. It soon becomes a shoot, then a > sapling, then a tree with many expansive branches that arches over an > entire garden. How does it know to do this? Tao [dau], n. ” >

  3. Hi Janet: You are definitely on target with your comment. Who does own the story and do we have the right to tell it? I’ve just returned from a week with friends we have known for more than 50 years. Stories come tumbling out at every turn. But I sometimes don’t tell a story because I realize it isn’t mine to tell…even with my own perspective.

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