It's wonderful when people feel their lives have been so fascinating that they should be written down and remembered. I love the memoirs some of my students write, to leave their memories and their history to their descendants. It's true, also, that some individual experiences are worth recounting.
However, as my mentor Connie Willis has said, Reality is no excuse. It's no excuse for boring catalogues of facts, for lists of names and places, for travelogues that don't have a point. It's most particularly no excuse for using an actual event as the basis for a story and not trimming and reorganizing it so it has a plot and a resolution.
The complaint "But that's the way it really happened!" can make a teacher's heart sink. James Frey knew this instinctively when he created A Million Little Pieces. His error, as we know now, was to claim that his memoir was all factual, when in fact he had taken his experiences and turned them into an electrifying account of addiction and recovery. Oprah gave him no quarter, and I think she did us all a disservice. The book wasn't factual; but it was one hell of a book.
Memoirs for children and grandchildren, of course, should be factual. They're not meant to be read as fiction, or to follow a classic plot line. What I encourage my students to do, though, is to write it all, not just the happy or funny or touching moments. A life is a story, and that means there is conflict and struggle, dark moments to triumph over, challenges to rise above. It's a strange thing, but my memoirists, in their sincere wish to leave something positive behind them, tend to avoid the natural tension that occurs in everyone's lives. I believe their message will be all the stronger for sharing the hard times with those who come after.
But if we're writing fiction--if we're creating drama--reality can inspire, but it can't dictate. Just because "it really happened" doesn't make it a good story. As one insightful middle-schooler asked me, "Does every story have to have a problem?" The answer is an unequivocal yes.