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Fiction and memoir writing: When Is It not a Memoir?

Fiction and memoir writing—what’s the difference? I have been reading a memoir that has been doing well here in Maine (it’s by an excellent Maine writer)–I can’t vouch for its reach in the rest of the country. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt so I can only presume it is receiving support elsewhere.

It’s an interesting book, very well-written in terms of style and organization, but my nagging doubt [Free Membership required to read more. See below. ]

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8 Responses to Fiction and memoir writing: When Is It not a Memoir?

  1. Dennis Sparks March 6, 2013 at 9:12 PM #

    An interesting discussion about when and how to make up dialog in a memoir.


    Dennis Sparks 1124 W. Liberty St. Ann Arbor, MI 48103 734-998-0574/office Blog: Twitter: @dennissparks

  2. Linda Visman - wangiwriter March 7, 2013 at 1:35 AM #

    Denis, I think you may have chosen the wrong paragraph here to illustrate your claim that this is not really memoir. Those very small details do not take away anything from the truth of what the author is writing – at least in my opinion. They simply illustrate the way she would normally do those simple things. In fact they enhance our knowledge of the writer – again in my opinion.
    I agree with what you say about Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’ – it is fictionalised memoir. That is because it is obvious that the detail is just too, well, detailed!
    But in the short extract you give us from this unnamed memoir, there appears to be nothing out of tune with a memory of an event. What would take away the reality is anything that must obviously be false, an over-assertiveness in ‘this is what happened and you must believe it’ approach.
    I believe that, if a writer acknowledges at some point that what is written is accurate as far as she know and as far as she remembers, then the small details that you point out would have no bearing on my willingness to see the whole as her story. It would be other things that could make me doubt her claims.
    Thanks for the opportunity to reply. 🙂

  3. Denis Ledoux March 7, 2013 at 1:39 PM #

    Liberties with facts ultimately, I believe, undermine the authority of a memoirist to present his/her life experience as a lived (vs. ficitonalized) version of the mythic journey. The lived hero’s tale must figure at the center of every memoir if the story is to rise above a chronology, a dirge or an encomium. In the nameless book, too many paragraphs like the one I cited in the blog entry erode confidence in the memoirist’s fidelity to what happened (the livedd experience) and create a sense of fictionalization–of choices to nurture the drama of the story (by making things up) over decisions to explore only what happened in view of arriving at an understanding/appreciation of the lived experience.

    If one accepts that fiction begins with feeling/insight (what we might call “theme”–“life is hard”) and ends up with plot line, characters and setting which will hold the writer’s insight for the reader, then one can grasp that fiction is based a priori on the author’s “take.” In a very real and different way, memoir begins with plot, characters and setting and proceeds to theme (“wow, that life as it was lived was hard”).

    The erosion of confidence in the writer’s assertion that she is writing memoir is generated by dozens and dozens of images such as “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” The detail is too particular be included as a memory of what had been an ordinary day (It ceased to be ordinary only later.). Had the author written, “Anne remembers being in love with another teacher and she so would always adjust her hem before leaving the privacy of her classroom” then the memory is plausible because the tiny “hem” detail is connected to a big “love” emotion. Of course, she would remember that. Had the author written “After hearing our father had died, Anne desperately adjusted the hem of her skirt. She remembers wanting the day to return to an ordinary day” the memory is again plausible because the tiny “hem” detail is connected to a big “death” emotion. Without these big connections, the “hem” detail, for me, erodes the authority of the memorist.

    I believe this is an appropriate paragraph to cite as the erosion of authority is not due to one writing faux pas but to a multitude of fiction-based images, dialogues, settings, etc. that ne has a nagging feeling could have been chosen for drama rather than authenticity. Eventually, little by little, one senses that one is reading an autobiographical fiction.

    I welcome your participation in this blog, Linda. You and others like you make it come alive. We each have a threshold of what we are willing to accept.Thank you for sharing your comments.

  4. Denis Ledoux March 7, 2013 at 1:47 PM #

    Dialog is so important in a memoir because it allows us to “hear” the subject, but it is fraught with problems. Essentially, i believe, most writers use dialog that is too long. Yeah, keep direct dialog short and glory in the indirect dialog! And…

    Never use dialog to impart information. (“My dear, sweet cousin Cornelia, the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk” [No, I don’t read romance novels.]) Use dialog to convey feeling. Information belongs in the narrative of the memoir.

    “‘My dear, sweet cousin Crmelia,’ I said pointing to….. Cornelia had married…”

  5. Sue Mitchell March 8, 2013 at 7:15 PM #

    I found this post fascinating. So often, memoir writers are told to make their memoir read like a novel, but there is a very real pitfall associated with this–turning it into fiction. The distinctions you explained in your comment to Linda help elucidate what types of details are overstepping and how to reassure your reader about the unlikely details you do remember. Very helpful and thought-provoking.

  6. Linda Visman - wangiwriter March 9, 2013 at 12:06 AM #

    Thanks Denis. I was pleased to read your elucidation of the problem. Obviously, when the author is continually using techniques for the creation of an impact on that event rather than for presenting the truth – even if it is ‘her truth’, it makes it less likely to get the reader to accept the total reality of what is written. I agree with you in that way. Extended dialogue is, as you say, quite unbelievable, unless it is an obvious transcription of a recorded conversation. I can’t remember what I said yesterday, let alone sixry years ago!
    But I do believe also that there are certain fiction-writing techniques that can enhance a memoir – when used appropriately and with discretion, and when they do not take away the ‘realness’ of the story.

  7. catherinelanser August 23, 2015 at 11:15 AM #

    This is such a helpful post. I have thought about this so many times when I am writing. About how it would be so much better if I could remember a little more dialogue, a little more of the scene and have even been encouraged by other memoirists that this type of fictionalisation is now the norm. Thankfully in some cases I have notebooks from the time which are very detailed, but a lot of times, I’ve had to rely on feeling rather than specific details. I am sure of my feelings often more than I am of specific details or words.

  8. Denis Ledoux August 23, 2015 at 12:24 PM #


    Thanks for your comment. I am always pleased that a post has been useful to a reader. I, too, can remember feelings with what is at times acuity that surpasses my memory for details. Like you, I am fortunate to have journals / notebooks to help me negotiate the past. I hope you will send us a story to post on the Memoir Writer’s Blog when you are ready to do so.

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