Is memoir fiction?
I emphatically don’t agree that memoir is fiction. Although a memoir invariably uses fiction techniques—and we will look at one in this post, it must be an as-much-as-possible true accounting of an experience.
A strength of fiction is its ability—when it is done right—to place us in the story, to enable us to get out of our “present” and enter into the time of the story. The memoir writer has to aim for the same level of involvement.
In many cases, this involves removing the narrator from our field of attention.
An easy mistake to correct
Have you ever used the phrase “I remember?” Using “I remember” as you are writing your memoir is a no-no. Of course, the writer remembers—otherwise, the story would be fiction, made up. Writers use the phrase to emphasize the veracity of their tale, but the phrase does not so much add to the sense of veracity as it takes the reader out of the memoir fiction and alerts us to the narrator.
As we read a memoir, we ought to enter into its world, into the memoir fiction. We see the little girl crunching leaves on her way back from Riverside School where she is in the fourth grade. Some of the red and the yellow leaves crumble beneath her feet and others part for her step. We are there beside her on the hill on Pleasant Street as we shuffle through the leaves ourselves.
When you write “I remember,” you are drawing our attention away from the little girl who has now begun to hope that her mother has baked peanut-butter cookies to the gray-haired writer—who is usually synonymous with the narrator — who is making the statement hoping to re-enforce the alliance between her and the reader. But…
At that moment, we don’t want to be with the writer who is at her computer, cup of tea beside her, creating the fiction that the girl is walking beneath towering maples on a late October day; we want to be one with the child who is sad because Sister Mary Margaret did not choose her for the role of Mary in the class Christmas play but has cast her as an angel. We can feel the little girl’s disappointment but…
The author has written, “I remember…”
There is that objectionable phrase “I remember.” Objectionable because the “I” brings the adult into focus and not the child.
Memoir, of course, is ultimately—horrors!—a sort of fiction. A memoirist selects and orders throughout the story and leaves out so much that we writers can only with great difficulty aver that we are really portraying what happened. Our memoir must admit its kinship to its close cousin the novel. In so doing it must not pull us out of its world.
Easy enough to correct when you omit the “I remember” crutch!
1. Read your current writing to find the “I remember” phrase(s)—and its
equivalents [“I recall,” “what comes to mind,” “in my mind’s eye,” etc.]
2. Remove these phrases. In many instances, you can simply eliminate them and the text will stand fine.
What has been your experience of using phrases such as “I remember?” Share how you changed your writing in the comments below.