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Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction

Which to Write: Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction? There is a Difference!

DL: the following is an adaptation of a reply I made on LinkedIn to comments about how writing autobiographical fiction was pretty much the same as memoir.  You will read that I disagree strongly. (If you are a member of LinkedIn, I would love to have a LinkedIn connection with you if we are not already connected.

Should I write memoir or autobiographical fiction?

I sometimes get asked this question and I have to confess that my reaction is firm. They are not the same.

There is a clear difference—a chasm really—between the choice of memoir or autobiographical fiction. While one has chosen to write one or the other, one does not have a choice to call one by the name of another. The writer owes it to the reader to be clear.

Autobiographical fiction is plot driven.

In autobiographical fiction, life facts may be altered—made bigger or smaller, brought forward or backward in time—to entertain the reader by enhancing the plot. If something in life occurred before another event but reversing the sequence works better for the autobiographical-fiction plot, then the fiction writer can do the alteration. This is a plot-driven story after all.

Memoir is premised on facts and their interpretation.

While every memoir (and, of course, this includes autobiography) must be entertaining, the instruction or mentoring of the reader rather than his/her entertainment is primary. People read memoirs to learn to be better or happier or more contributory people.

If I am the father of a person who committed suicide, I might read a memoir to learn how another parent faced—and survived—the same situation. I am not interested in entertainment although I do not want to be bored. I expect the text to be the truth of the situation of having lost child to suicide and not an imaginative fabrication—fiction—of how the author might have faced the situation. If the author says that events happened and they happened in a certain sequence, I have a right to expect that the events actually occurred and that they occurred in the described sequence. Otherwise, I will be misled.

(A stunning example of false mentoring is the diarist Anais Nin who led her readers to believe she was a single woman heroically pursuing the artist’s life. The fact was she was married to a wealthy man who bankrolled her life and permitted her to write without any need to consider where her rent or food money would come from. Many people believed Nin was supporting herself and living in poverty and allowed themselves to be falsely mentored by her fictionalized example. This is a case of how the choice between memoir or autobiographical fiction can make a huge difference.)

Examples of memoir or autobiography

I am reading a book now which is a memoir but which is focused on the unusual and the exotic in the life of the writer. Knowing we share some similar life situations, I approached the memoir anticipating learning how the author dealt with similar inputs as mine. What I found was a lot of anecdotes in the memoir that are unbelievable due to their precision. Clearly, the author is intent on entertaining me. (It almost feels like a “beach read.”) My choice is a mistake as far as my needs are concerned. I don’t feel I can trust this writer to mentor me. Since I have other reasons other than mentoring to be reading this particular memoir, I will probably finish it.

Recently, I did finish a piece of autobiographical fiction which I thought was memoir. I was uncomfortable with the presentation. It, too, was a bit too detailed. Here is an example of the sort of writing I am referring to: “I turned my head to the left as aromas of my grandmother’s stew to which she had added too much allspice wafted towards me. I looked out the stained window at the two brown birds on the green lawn chair. Beyond, the dog played on the patio whose right side had missing tiles.” Now, no fifty-year-old remembers these details of decades ago much less would a six-year-old notice them. The text smacks of fiction.

I went on the Internet to scout out any information to evaluate what was happening. I learned—as I suspected—that I was dealing with autobiographical fiction. It was being presented as memoir.

Like playing tennis

Memoir writing, because it forces you to face the facts and interpret them, is like playing tennis with the net up. It is much more difficult than autobiographical fiction, and because it forces the writer to deal with the difficulties of a life, is perhaps more satisfying—at least it is for me.

Autobiographical fiction allows the writer to lower the net every once in a while—perhaps when the writing gets difficult?

Writing about your life as fiction can be fine—it is a choice after all, but you owe it to the reader to present it as fiction and not as memoir. There is an implicit contract between the memoir writer and the memoir reader that what is written down is a fact, the truth—to the best of the writer’s ability and memory.

Action Steps

  1. Review recent writing for discerning the clear distinctions I set above between memoir or autobiographical fiction.  Remember it is your right to choose either, but you do not have a choice about informing your reader. You must identify your book as memoir or autobiographical fiction.
  2. What do you need to change to make your writing clearly “memoir.”
  3. Why do you want to make this change?


4 Responses to Which to Write: Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction? There is a Difference!

  1. Barbara Macdonald at #

    You have just answered a question I didn’t know I had. The difference between memoir and an autobiographical fiction. I have spent years starting to write a memoir then giving up. I was confused as to what to include. I think I understand now. ” Just the facts, nothing but the facts,” seems to be the way to write a memoir.
    Is that right or am I still confuse?

  2. Yes, you seem to have it right!

    I do want to add though that “just the facts” does not preclude some guesswork on your part. For instance, it is all right to conjecture “I believe my father was never happy with his position in the company because…” In this case you are “owning” the observation and clearly attributing it to yourself. You are, of course, in a very good position to have a reasonable guess about other people in your life and their motivation. You are probably very close to “The Truth,” but you must alert the reader that this is your guess.

  3. Stephen Williams at #

    I’m a little unclear about the boundaries between the two. I’m writing some parts of my memoir with speech. It is impossible for me to remember the exact words – some of them are from 20 year old memories – but I’m making sure the conversation is true to my memory and the people involved. I’m certainly not exaggerating or describing my surroundings or smells or the like, only my feelings about what is happening. Do you think this is acceptable in a memoir?

  4. Thanks for posting. A viable solution to your comment lies in the indirect quote or dialog. Here are two of my posts of indirect dialog that may be useful:
    Good luck with your writing.

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