When Does a Memoir Writer Choose Fiction Based on Life?

by Jerry Waxler

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

Every time I read a memoir, I feel the delicious release of leaving myself behind and entering the author’s world. How did this person cope? How did they grow? How did that feel? My involvement in each author’s experience does not rely on sensational circumstances. I read memoirs to show me the relationship between the author’s circumstances and his or her interior world. Memoirs are the only way I know to see inside another person’s mind. I love that.

I hope my memoir will, someday, offer the same gift to my readers as other authors have done for me – develop the best possible story based on the actual events of my life. That is the memoir writer’s quest.

When I first decided to write my memoir, I had never written a story of any kind, and so I went on a long journey, simultaneously traveling on two parallel roads. Like an electron that is in two places at once, I found myself dancing between the memories themselves and the art of representing those memories in words. I learned that a story carries the reader forward with literary devices, such as pacing, setting expectations, and flights of observation that add a splash of color to an otherwise drab scene.

To learn these skills, I often find myself learning from fiction writers. They are the keepers of storytelling, building on a craft that has been evolving for thousands of years, adjusting and shaping reality in order to captivate the minds of their readers. Even though memoir writers adhere to the truth, sometimes the need for excellence pushes them to the blurry boundary between truth and story.

For example, since few of us have the luxury of accurate contemporaneous notes, we must reconstruct what was said. Even with contemporaneous notes, written dialog is different than spoken. The same creativity applies to one’s thoughts. There is no way to know the exact thoughts. Memoir writers report the most likely version.

I love the veracity of memoirs, and read each one as if it was a detailed, honest account. But I also recognize that when attempting to transform their lives into stories, many writers prefer the pure invention permitted in fiction. There could be many reasons for this choice. Perhaps facts are difficult to remember, or were not exciting, or there are thing to be kept secret.

During my research, I came across a book by Xujun Eberlein. She grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And her collection of short stories, Apologies Forthcoming, reflects those strange and fascinating times. However, when I asked her about the reality or lack of it in her stories she insisted it was all fiction. [Click here to read our interview.]

Susan Muaddi Darraj a Palestinian-American wrote a book of short stories called The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly, which won the Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction from Foreword Magazine. Most of what I know about Palestinians comes from the turmoil in the Mideast. I wanted to read about Palestinians in South Philadelphia. Her short stories gave me authentic glimpses of cultural mixing, and yet like Xujun Eberlein, she questioned the value of exploring their veracity or lack of it. [Click here to read our interview.]

Even though both books were fiction, their stories gave me a wonderful window into aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise have been able to experience.

Recently, I learned of another example of fiction based on reality, a novel by David Kalish called the Opposite of Everything. The book is about a man’s journey through cancer treatment, a profoundly disturbing time in a person’s life that cries out for understanding. But how much of the story was based on his own experience? He offered a hint during an interview with blogger Crystal Otto:

Before he was Daniel Plotnick, my main character had my name. That’s because my book started as a first-person memoir about my struggles with cancer and divorce. But over years of revision I decided the book worked better as a third-person comedic novel.[Click here for the whole interview.]

This decision fascinated me. Why did he do it and how did the transition work out? Fortunately, he is willing to delve into this question more deeply. In my next post, I will publish the first part of our interview.


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.

2 thoughts on “When Does a Memoir Writer Choose Fiction Based on Life?

  1. The line between memoir and fiction sometimes becomes so blurred that the safer label is “fiction”. Plus, us fiction writers have a lot easier job. We can make stuff up! 🙂

  2. Thanks for you comment, Eric. I’m thinking about how “safe” fiction is. Certainly it’s safe from the accusation of lying, but when I think of a blank computer file and the infinite possibilities of “write a story” I feel like I’m in the wilds of my own mind. For me, it’s been safer to stick with writing about reality. Having said that, I love taking a peek behind the curtain and pondering what it might be like on the other side of that scary veil. Best wishes, Jerry

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