What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

The novel, The Opposite of Everything is a powerful, fictional account about a character whose marriage is falling apart at the same time as he is fighting with a death sentence from cancer. In fact, this was the same circumstance as the author David Kalish.

Taking a cue from the title, I careened back and forth between the opposites of fiction and memoir, asking myself which parts were true, and how does fiction add to the power of the true life tale. The question of fact versus fiction haunts many memoir authors. How much should I hide? How can I protect myself from lawsuits and hate mail? What if I misremember? How can I embellish to make it more interesting?

I love these questions on the boundary of truth and continue to hope for answers. For example, last year, I went for a walk with Robert Waxler in preparation for point and counterpoint talks we intended to give some day about memoir versus literature. Since he is an English professor at UMass and has written two memoirs as well as a number of books touting the power of literature, he is intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. I told him that I believe memoirs are so important because they emerge from the truth. He insisted on the exact opposite. He believes that fiction is so much more powerful because it’s invented. These opposing views seem unsolvable.

The exciting thing about memoir writing, for me, has been the willingness to face these fears and keep going, staring into the unanswerable questions of truth and story. Now, having read the Opposite of Everything, I have come face to face with a man who has been staring at this paradox since he started writing about his life ten years ago.

Because he is apparently an expert in opposites, I interviewed him about these two forms of narrative and asked him how and why he stepped through that mysterious stargate into the limitless realm of imagination.

Your initial experience as a memoir writer

Jerry Waxler: When you first attempted to write this story, you were attempting to do it in a memoir. During that initial period, like any memoir writer, you were sticking to the facts and trying to turn them into a narrative, a compelling storyline. That makes you an unpublished memoir author. What did you learn from that experience?

David Kalish: I first wrote my book as a memoir because my life was pretty dramatic, and seemed to lend itself to a straight-forward telling. In just four months in 1994, I was diagnosed with incurable thyroid cancer at the same time my first marriage fell apart. I later got remarried to a doctor, and underwent chemotherapy around the same time my daughter was born. I turned to writing as a way to let off steam and tell what I thought was a pretty compelling story. I jotted down scenes, strung together a narrative. Going through this exercise helped me view the events in my life dramatically, and I gave certain scenes more emphasis than others, viewing them in a way that made sense from the standpoint of telling a story.

But after numerous rewrites over several years, I wasn’t happy with the result. The writing felt stiff. I didn’t know how to express how I felt about my pain. My characters were stick figures. Deep down, I felt uncomfortable starring in a book that featured me.

I decided to create some narrative distance. I tried humor. I made my characters do things their real-life counterparts wouldn’t consider.  I told the story in third-person. I replaced real names with offbeat ones. I stretched truths for dramatic effect.

What did it feel like to break loose from truth?

Jerry Waxler: To craft a memoir, writers limit themselves to what they can remember. But to turn your manuscript into fiction, you allow yourself to draw from the entire universe of possibilities. That’s a big step that seems to me like leaving the safety of the known and entering the unknown.

How did that feel? Were you scared of the unlimited possibilities? Exhilarated? Was there a moment you decided to make the break?

David Kalish: As a reporter for twelve years at The Associated Press, accuracy was paramount. But I’ve always written fiction on the side, and loved the freedom of it. So when I decided to extend that feeling to my book, I felt extra-liberated. The end result is still a story about one man’s struggle, his search for renewal. But I’ve handed the story over to actors who are free to do all sorts of crazy things. I focused more fully on narrative arc. I went to town on my life.

It was only after I took a fictional perspective – other than my own — did my compassion for characters emerge on the page. As an experiment in the novel’s opening scenes, for instance, I switched the POV from the main character to my first wife. This enabled me to imagine what she was going through during the collapse of my marriage. In doing so, I learned she wasn’t all bad — it was our relationship that was bad. In the end I switched the POV back to the protagonist’s. But my sense of compassion lingered, helping me to write a fuller account.

I felt uncertain about fictionalizing my memoir, of course. It was hard for me to decide where to push drama and comedy, and where to let the facts speak for themselves. That’s where I received lots of help from fellow writers, particularly from Bennington College’s Writing Seminars Program, where I earned my MFA. We formed a writing group after graduating where we shared insights into each other’s work. This helped tremendously when I repeatedly revised my novel to pare it to its essential story.

Sets you free to explore stylistic invention

Jerry Waxler: Most memoirs tend to be more journalistic, explaining what really happened without flights of wordplay and phrasing. In comparison, your book takes all sorts of stylistic liberties: fantastical metaphorical devices (like your character’s notion of  the two opposing lumps, his cancer and his wife’s baby) and being able to write chapters from other character’s points of view.

Stylistically you seem to aspire to get into my head in a playful way and sizzle and pop, using words to excite and inspire. Thanks for that sensation!! Fiction seems to have set you free from the journalistic style typical for most memoirs. Tell me how you felt your style evolving when you left memoir behind and entered the mindset of a novel writer. Did your voice change? How so?

David Kalish: When I was writing it as a memoir, the narrative voice was distant from the emotional core of the story. Once I started making stuff up, I had fun with my characters. I had them banter, tell jokes. I riffed on dialogue. The comedy revealed the coping mechanism of the characters, as well as myself. The narrator in turn reconnected to the underlying emotion.

My tone became lighter, even as my material remained dark. I grew less focused on creating beautiful sentences and more focused on conveying ideas, character and story. My writing, as a result, became punchier. The visuals less complicated. The words were a conduit for what I wanted to convey: the emotional journey of the characters.

In the next part of our interview I ask David Kalish more about his decision and thoughts on the relationship between these forms of literature.

Click here for Part 2


For more about David Kalish:
Web site

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

13 thoughts on “What Happens When a Memoir Author Chooses Fiction?

  1. Very interesting journey, Jerry and David. I am doing an interview with Carol Bodensteiner on my blog June 2 and will link to this interview because the subject is the same. Kathy Pooler just interviewed Mary Gottschalk who followed the same path from memoir to novel. I think you have noted a trend! And everyone seems to agree that working with characters other than the character of “self” is very freeing.

  2. Enjoyed this interview, Jerry and David. Had just read Kathy Pooler’s interview with Mary Gottschalk and have watched as others, like Carol Bodensteiner, follow this path. I’m always on the lookout for memoirists who shift to novelist as I’m tempted by the trend myself. Often I experience many of David’s feelings when working on my memoir even though others tend to comment otherwise. Thanks so much for an important and informative post.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Shirley and Sherrey and for these other interviews. I’m glad to note others in the “tribe” are pondering the same issues. As much as I love the memoir form for its authenticity and a sort of “folk art” foundation that emerges directly from each individual’s heart, there are important reasons to consider fiction.

    For example, I’ve always figured that problems of privacy are solvable with a little tweaking or obfuscating, but one of the reasons my own memoir is stuck in the manuscript stage are issues of privacy I just can’t seem, to work around.

    I’ve also felt that to write a good novel, one requires spectacular, specialized language skills, but as I continue to grow as a story writer, I feel that these stylistic issues may be within my reach.

    It’s an amazing juncture between two worlds and I doubt I’ll ever tire of pondering how to steer between them.


  4. Jerry and David,
    Great interview and insights into, what seems to be, a growing trend. I will also be watching this unfold through your next installment, as well as the other authors who were mentioned in the comments here. I am leaning towards novel, rather than memoir, but have made no decisions.
    Best Regards,

  5. Enjoyed your book David and this interview with Jerry. I have started to put down some thoughts about my childhood and there are some not so nice instances that I would like to put out there but as concerned about the privacy issues. How do you handle those issues when writing a memoir and/or would you recommend writing fiction to avoid those issues?
    Thank you,

  6. Dear Jerry and David, this is a fascinating exploration of the factors influencing a memoirists decision to turn to fiction. Memoirists are confined to the truth and can be stifled by concerns about liability as you point out, David. One seems to have more creative license to play with the facts in fiction. I always figured a memoirist turned to fiction because memoir is such a daunting process. But despite that, I am not inclined at this point to turn to fiction.Fir me, there are too many real-life stories I have left to explore. That being said, I have a great deal of respect for my memoir colleagues who have chosen fiction as their next project. MaryGottschalk is one of them. She expanded on her “stepping out of her comfort zone” theme from her memoir and explored it through her novel. Many others are following suit–Carol Bodensteiner, Doreen Cox, Susan Weidener, Madeline Sharples, Linda Joy Myers and I am looking forward to hearing about their experiences. Thank you both for an insightful interview.

  7. Interesting interview, gentlemen. I too moved from memoir to fiction, but for completely different reasons. As a developmental editor, I want to make it clear that you have many of the same stylistic craft elements at your disposal when writing memoir that you have when writing fiction–it’s “creative nonfiction,” after all–but memoirists do tend to get so caught in the “telling” that they can forget the many layers of literature available to them that can bring alive a true tale.

  8. Hi Virginia, Thanks for your comment. I’m so glad you are recording events from childhood. The journey of writing a memoir certainly has at least a thousand steps. Just getting them on paper is one of the earliest. And as you turn them into a narrative, you will find your relationship to your memories growing more mature. One of the great opportunities of memoir writing is exactly that – to move important events of your life from the wet messy container of memory to the lyrical, narrative form of story. As you develop this deeper understanding, the many forms of literature become available to you. (As Kathryn Craft points out in her comment.) Over time, your relationship to the past will grow to include your future readers. It’s a fascinating journey and I congratulate you on taking the first steps. Jerry

  9. Jerry: An interestng interview and discussion here. I see you are still not convinced that “fiction” gets us to a truth that the “memoir” cannot quite reach. I think we’ll have to get together soon to debate all this further. For me, fiction remains the best hope for “real life.” Keep the vision. Bob Waxler

  10. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I continue to think that your position is counter-intuitive, which makes it all the more fascinating. I intend to continue to try to see it your way and thanks for your willingness to engage in the conversation. If the truth lies somewhere in between, we’ll have it surrounded. 🙂


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