Interview: Emotional Truth

An interview with Maureen Murdock by B. Lynn Goodwin
June 2004

When Maureen Murdock shares her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, she describes the memories captured in Unreliable Truth. Her book, subtitled On Memoir and Memory, grew beyond the story of her mother’s battles into a guide for writers. It shows that memoir is neither a photograph nor a biography, but an individual’s unique “angle of perception.”

Memoir blends personal perceptions and universal truth. “The secret is to tell your particular life story so that it adds to our collective understanding of what it is to be human,” according to Murdock. In the first section of Unreliable Truth, “To the Best of My Recollection,” she mixes memory and reflection, showing the process she uses to tell her stories.

In the second section, “On Writing Memoir,” Murdock offers tools, techniques, and writing suggestions. I tried some of them when I took her memoir-writing class, and I strongly recommend them. Below she shares her experience and advice.

LG: Tell us about yourself. What is your background? When/how did you discover memoirs and decide to write in that genre?

MM: I have been a psychotherapist for 22 years and I teach creative writing as well as depth psychology in graduate school. Growing up Irish American, I have always been interested in how people tell the stories of their lives and what they choose to tell. The story we tell about ourselves becomes the story we live. I certainly saw that in my father’s life. He’s a great story teller and he believes the stories he tells about himself and they come true!

I started to research memoirs for a class I was teaching in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program about 10 years ago just as the memoir genre was starting to catch hold. I decided to teach the genre before I decided to write in that genre.

LG: What/who was the subject of your first memoir? How did it affect you and the people you wrote about?

MM: My mother was the subject of my first memoir pieces. I had had a difficult relationship with her and I was trying to understand her. She was a complex character. I was also looking for a way to heal our relationship. I gained a lot of compassion for her in writing about her.

LG: Can you explain what the term “unreliable truth” means and tell what makes a memoir successful?

MM: When a person “remembers” an event in their life, they remember it and recount it from their perspective. They have their own angle of perception on what happened. Another person who was present at that same event might remember it differently. That’s why siblings often say, “That didn’t happen” or “It didn’t happen that way–this is the way it happened.”

We each have our own emotional truth. That truth might not be exactly factually correct, but what is important for the person writing memoir is how they recall the event and what meaning they make out of it for their lives. I don’t mean, in any way, that they fabricate the event. What I mean is that they take an actual event and replicate it to the best of their recollection.

What makes a memoir successful is to take a slice of life and give it universal appeal so that the reader can relate to it. In writing memoir, the writer seeks to make meaning of their life through self-reflection. We are meaning making people; memoir gives us the opportunity to take a memory that might actually be quite mundane and develop it into a story that illuminates some aspect of our lives.

LG: What was your process for writing this book?

MM: This book started as a comparison between myth and memoir. It became clear to me years ago that most memoirs address mythic domains such as: Who am I? Where am I going? What is my tribe? What is my purpose?

I did an enormous amount of research, reading every memoir I could get my hands on and at the same time reading some of the classical myths. I saw comparisons, for example, between the myth of Demeter and Persephone and Jackie Lyden’s The Daughter of the Queen of Sheba and between Geoff Wolff’s Duke of Deception and The Odyssey. Both memoirists were writing about the search for the parent. At the same time, I was writing about my mother and the deterioration of her memory and the loss of her identity because of Alzheimer’s disease. I tried to sell the book for a year before one of my former editors said, “This book is really about your mother. Rewrite it.”

In terms of my process, I like to mindmap as I write so that I can visually see the connections between ideas I am trying to understand. I write outlines over and over and put them up on the wall next to my mindmaps. I might write one chapter and realize that it does not fit where I originally thought it would go so I am fairly flexible about changing sequencing.

I don’t edit as I go. I have to get all of my ideas and images down before I go back and do the work of crafting the writing. I reread my work aloud before I do line editing. The sound of each sentence is very important to me.

I wanted this book to be primarily a memoir about my relationship with my mother and also my grappling with the connection between memory and identity. However, my editor at Seal believed that it also needed to be a book about how to write a memoir so we decided to add a part two. That was not my original vision but I think it is helpful for readers.

My agent sent the proposal out to 26 publishers before it was accepted. I received some thoughtful rejection letters, which included suggestions that were actually quite helpful in crafting the final proposal which was accepted by Seal Press.

LG: What are two of your favorite memoirs and why do you like them?

MM: My favorite memoir is Lying by Lauren Slater. She writes it as a metaphorical memoir, using epilepsy as a metaphor for the idea that each one of us in life have to learn how to “fall,” and she asks the question: “do we ever really have a safety net to catch us?” She is a writer that really makes me think. Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments is a masterful example of the genre, and I loved Geoff Wolff’s examination of his father in The Duke of Deception.

LG: What advice would you give to writers in general and to memoir writers specifically?

MM: The advice I always give my students is to make writing a PRACTICE. You have to exercise the writing muscle everyday just like you exercise other muscles in your body. Try to write 700 words a day. I think it’s a good idea for all writers, but particularly for memoir writers to keep a daily journal, to look at old photos, old letters, have conversations with relatives, do research about what was going on in the culture at the time they are writing about–anything to jog their memories. And read memoirs to see not only how the writer crafts the story of their life but how they started to make meaning of their life.

LG: What are you working on now?

MM: I’m working on a piece about mental illness from the perspective of being a parent with a bi-polar child.

LG: That should find an audience. Where can people find copies of Unreliable Truth?

MM: In independent bookstores, through the chains, on If your independent bookstore doesn’t have the book, please ask them to order it.

LG: Thanks so much for all the original ideas you shared. You make me hungry to write memoir again.