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memoir vs. autobiographical fiction

Memoir vs. Autobiographical Fiction? Which is Best?

I sometimes get asked this question and I have to confess that my reaction is firm. There is a clear difference—a chasm really—between the choice of writing memoir vs. autobiographical fiction.While one has a choice to write one or the other, one does not have a choice to call one by the name of the other.

The writer owes it to the reader to be honest. My latest YouTube video deals with this topic.

1. Let’s look at autobiographical fiction first. It is plot driven.

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

2. Now let’s turn to memoir. 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 son or daughter 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,  of course, 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—a fiction—of how the author might have faced the situation. If the author says that events happened and they are listed 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.

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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 well-healed 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 account. This is a case of how the choice between memoir or autobiographical fiction can make a huge difference to the reader.

Examples of memoir vs. autobiography

I am reading a book 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, to show me the way thought my life. Since I have other reasons other than mentoring to be reading this particular memoir, however, 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, but it was being presented as memoir.

Like playing tennis: writing memoir vs. autobiographical fiction

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 in my estimation than autobiographical fiction, and because it forces the writer to deal with the difficulties of a life, it is perhaps more satisfying—at least, it is for me.

Autobiographical fiction on the other hand 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.

Here are some memoir vs. autobiographical fiction Action Steps to improve your writing

1.    Review your recent writing for 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?If you would like to explore receiving help with any aspect of  memoir writing, we offer a 30-minute complimentary get-to-know-you coaching consultation.

To view our YouTube video on the Memoir vs. Autobiographical Fiction, click here.

In conclusion

Whatever you do today write a bit on your memoir.

Remember: the Memoir Writing Master Class Channel on YouTube contains many informative videos on aspects of memoir writing. We are your free memoir university!Please: subscribe, then like us and leave a comment.

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