Whether to Write Memoir or Fiction?

Have been thinking a lot lately about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of writing a memoir or novel.  If your story is peculiar or infamous — for example, if your experience is war-related or concerns a particularly unusual health challenge — memoir is the way the go.  The reason, of course, is that readers will specifically want to learn what it was like to be a prisoner of war, or what it was like to undergo some 60 operations and organ transplants.  They don’t necessarily seek someone’s imaginative narrative in this regard.  But what if your unique story isn’t especially dramatic?  What if the scope of your circumstances are relatively banal and concern such issues as religious conversion, or family strife, or dating pratfalls?  While such generalized experiences can certainly be the building blocks of a terrific memoir, they also provide inspiration for gripping fiction.  The advantage of fiction, here, is that the author has greater freedom to build tension and structure the events from the most effective literary perspective.  Conversely, the writer’s ability to tell is relatively hamstrung in memoir — things happened as they happened, and no one’s real life takes an ideal fictional arc.  Instead, we have ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and “what actually happened” doesn’t always make for scintillating literature.

Another consideration: as tough as the U.S. publishing market is for fiction, it’s a lot more challenging for memoirs by relatively unknown authors.  So unless you’ve hit a million Twitter followers, fiction may present the most marketable opportunity for your story.

When To Use Real Names in Memoirs

A talented student-memoirist asked recently whether he should identify characters in his memoir by their real names.  There’s no simple answer, but at the drafting stage of your memoir writing go ahead and use real names. Having the actual person in mind will greatly assist with your characterization and storytelling.  However, this question of true identity is one that any memoirist will need to revisit with a publisher once he or she secures a publishing contract.  The most important thing, of course, is not to libel anyone in your manuscript. Also, if applicable, you’d definitely want to change someone’s name if there are moral concerns (e.g., if someone was raped, etc.). A final concern is that in some states, such as California, individuals have a legal right to publicity. That means you may need their permission if you identify them in a book (unless they’re a public figure).

How to Write a Memoir

We’ve had a lot of interest in our workshops recently in memoir writing.  Because of the well known memoir-related scandals in years past (think James Frey, Margaret Jones, Greg Mortenson), some publishers either have shied away from such works, or demand a lot of documentary evidence that the episodes described actually happened.  Still, there’s a market for the unique and fascinating memoir, and it can be among the most natural first works for new authors to tackle.  One pitfall many writers run into, however, is in deciding which life events to describe, and which ones to leave out.  Some writers don’t leave anything out — and that’s a problem, because what’s fascinating to the memoirist may not be all that interesting to a third-party reader.  Moreover, too much information can lead to a meandering narrative and diminish the punch that the writer aims to deliver at the end of each respective chapter.  A memoir, in structure, ought to somewhat resemble a novel — there needs to be a narrative arc, characterization must be developed, the reader should get hooked early in the story, tension and suspense must not be dissipated, and you’ve got to communicate a sense of emotional depth.  Not everything that happened to the memoirist will contribute to a successful memoir, from a literary point of view.  Therefore, it’s important to recognize what to include, what to reduce, and how to arrange all the pieces of your experience to share with readers what we all want from a good book — universal truths to which we all can relate.