Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Memoir vs. Fiction


A memoir is a selected aspect of life.  It is a story from a life.  It is not a replica of a whole life.  That would be an autobiography.  A memoir doesn’t have a shapely plot in the way that fiction usually does.  Imagination plays a role in both kinds of writing.  However, the application of imagination in a memoir is bound by facts, while in fiction it is centered on what the reader will believe.  If you name what you write memoir or fiction, you enter into a contract with the reader.  You say this is what really happened (memoir) or you say that this is imaginary (fiction).

There is one rule that applies to both memoir and fiction:  Be interesting!

Please note that not everything in a memoir is factually accurate.  No one can remember the exact dialogue that took place at breakfast forty years ago. The author says that this is my story as I remember it.  It is up to you how far you will allow yourself to go to fill in the memory gaps.  We all know that siblings often have different childhoods; a memoir is a story of your past.  But you are limited by your experience, as you remember it.  For example, if you say you had four sisters and this is not the case, then you are telling a lie.   In a memoir, the author stands behind the story, saying that this is what happened; this is true.  The central point commitment is not to fictionalize. 
In fiction you can invent characters, places, change chronologies and make up a better ending.  In other words, you are free to lie.  You can conflate several characters into one composite character. A story can sound like it’s true told in the first person, but if the writer presents it as fiction; the reader will usually perceive it as such.  Once you begin fiction, you owe your allegiance to the story and not to the facts.  Sometimes a lie tells a larger truth.  Perhaps Aunt Mabel from Tennessee can be better told as Genevieve from Connecticut, or your mother’s beginnings in an orphanage better explain her behavior as an adult.  Thus, fiction is not bound by facts.  It tells a story by tampering with the truth.
 Helpful exercises for writing memoir or fiction:

A.  For all you list lovers, try any of these on and see if you can come up with a story.

1.           List the friends you’ve had who made a difference, even the ones who weren’t exactly friends.

2.            List all pets you’ve ever had, even the short-lived goldfish from Woolworth’s and the little turtle that turned into cardboard overnight.

3.            List the moments you’d live over again for whatever reason.

4.            List the worst moment(s) of your life.

5.            List anything you’ve done that you’re ashamed of.

6.            List objects that you’ve lost; the ones you wish you now had.

7.            List the person you wished you had never met.  The person you want to meet.

8.            List the best meals that you’ve ever eaten and where you ate them.

9.            List the toys and games that you owned as a child.

10.        List your favorite songs and the ones that you can’t stand.

11.        List your favorite smells.

12.        List the things that make you afraid.

13.        List what you resent the most.  Conversely, what you appreciate the most.

 B.    Or write a portrait about someone you hate, knowing that person will never see it.

C.     Or write the story of a particular vacation and why it was good or bad.

D.     Or write a story using this beginning:  “I can tell you how it happened.  It’s easy to say how it happened.”

E.      Or incorporate some of the above material into a story you are presently writing or have written.

The more you write, the better you get.
Catherine Alexander

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