At any given point in life, the urge to write a memoir can strike. Memoir-writing offers the opportunity to relate lessons learned and secrets never divulged. Most important of all, memoirs represent a chance to share the truth. But for a very small minority of memoir writers, the impulse to share not truth, but lies, is overpowering.
That’s how fake memoirs are born.
Why do people write fake memoirs? According to Freakonomics, there are three basic reasons:
1. A true story gets a lot more media coverage than a lifelike novel.
2. A true story generates more buzz in general, including potential film sales, lecture opportunities, etc.
3. The reader is engaged with the story on a more visceral level if a book is a memoir rather than fictional.
Writing a fake memoir is a treacherous, tricky business. But learning how it’s done is the best way to avoid being fooled by the next shocking but highly improbable bestselling tell-all. After being fooled way too many times myself (hello, Go Ask Alice, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Three Cups of Tea! ) I decided to write my own fake memoir, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story.
Here’s what I learned along the way.
How to write a fake memoir
1. Decide who you will write about
You have two choices: write about yourself or pretend to be someone else — preferably someone imaginary, as in the case of The Education of Little Tree, or someone famous, as in the case of “The Hitler Diaries”. Writing about yourself is easy, since nobody knows your story better than you. Writing about someone else is very difficult and very dangerous. You’ll need to do tons of research, learn to mimic the writing style of another person (possibly from an era, background, or country very different from your own), and find a way not to get sued.
Your best bet is to write about yourself. That’s what I did.
2. Pick your theme
Memoirs are different from autobiography. Instead of a straightforward retelling of the events of your life from birth to the present moment, your goal is to select a theme that will inform the entire narrative. It could be your coming of age (as in Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah), the discovery of what you were meant to do with your life (as in Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag), or your greatest struggle (as in every addiction memoir ever; also, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the memoir later made into the movie 127 Hours, also known as “that movie where James Franco cuts his own arm off”).
For False Memoir, I chose the historical moment when the newspaper industry tanked and I, who was working as a journalist for a newspaper, had to make a major, life-altering decision … though I didn’t know it at the time.
Once you’ve figured out your theme, don’t waiver from it. Everything you write should circle around this narrative pivot point.
3. Lie — but only once
There’s an old saying, “Never do two illegal things at once. That’s how you get caught.” The same holds true for lying. When writing a fake memoir, you get one lie. Just one. Use it wisely.
It can be a whopper — but it must be believable. The most popular lies are:
- “I was a holocaust survivor.”
- “I had a torrid affair with a famous person.”
- “I was horribly abused as a child.”
- “I did ALL the drugs!”
- “I am a member of an oppressed group or ethnicity (usually Native American).”
Try to pick a different lie. These falsehoods are easily outed, simply because they’ve been used too many times by too many fake memoir writers.
For my big lie, I chose, “I was involved with the investigation of a serial killer that stalked Seattle.”
4. Tell the truth — a lot
Now that you’ve chosen your big lie, it’s time to add true facts about your life that will support your fakery. Keep as much truth in your story as possible, but only include details that will support your lie. And, as Slate advised in “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide: How to embellish your life story without getting caught,” you need to be careful about how you present the truth. “Specificity is your enemy. Write with passionate vagueness. … Write what you know — but no one else does.”
The tagline of my book is “All of it is true and none of it happened.” Every detail about myself — where I worked, the car I drove, where I bought the rather idiotic trench coat I used to wear when out doing reporterly tasks and how much I paid for it — everything, except the increasingly dangerous serial killer story-chasing, was true. I even included my old work phone number, just for fun. Try calling it and see what happens.
5. Don’t lie about anyone else
This is the biggest stumbling block for memoir fabulists. Don’t put words in anyone’s mouth; don’t write about actions that someone else didn’t do; and don’t claim that you’re from a country, ethnicity, social class, or religious background that you’re not — you’re also making that claim for every member of your family, and they will come out of the woodwork to correct you. If you lie about friends or former romantic partners, they will take to social media to shame you. And if you lie about public figures, the risks are even greater.
In False Memoir, I specifically didn’t write about anyone I knew — or about any real people, in fact. Instead, I kept all interactions with police agencies vague, encounters with other members of the media anonymous (except for one fictitious character, who bears no resemblance to any person), and all family members and friends unnamed.
6. Just admit that it’s fiction
Do it before you’re forced to. Don’t wind up like James Frey, shamed on national television and forced to reclassify his memoir as fiction after the fact. You’ve had your fun; just go on and cop to the fact that you made it all up.
I purposefully gave my fake memoir a title that establishes that it’s not a true story by any stretch, and shelved it in the fiction section. There’s also a twist in the story itself … but you’ll have to read it to find out what it is.
Should you write a fake memoir like I did? Sure, why not? It was enjoyable and challenging, and that’s the whole point of writing.
Just don’t pretend it’s anything other than a fake memoir. You want to be known as an imaginative writer, not a shameless liar.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.