May 10, 2004

Memoir or fiction?

A thought left over from the LA Times Book Fair: how do memoir and fiction differ when the fiction sometimes stays this-close to what really occurred and the memoir often strays? What does it mean to be writing one or the other? How do you stay true the form? Most important to me: if you have a story in mind, something that happened to you, how do you decide which form is right?

Iíve found myself musing on this the past several days. My novel is not autobiographical, not even a little (Iím not a circus performer) but of course some of the feelings and attitudes inevitably are. I have another novel in mind, perhaps the next one Iíll write. That one is more autobiographical, which is to say the time and place and some of the details are from my life but the character and the main events of the story are fictional (Iíve never had a meeting with a dead person). Those are both clear cut, they need to be fiction, they need the ability to weave stories from my imagination with a dollop here or there from life.

But I keep a third novel in the back of my mind. An entirely autobiographical one Ė beginning, middle, and end. And my stories are mostly from life, though sometimes perhaps not entirely so and Iíll never tell you which is which (unless you ask, of course) (which means, yes, I will tell) (I think) (then again, maybe not). So sometimes I wonder if I should write one as a creative nonfiction piece, a memoir.

But Iíve done that. In my original online journal. And while I find it sometimes cathartic to go back and re-imagine, reshape and rethink events, I donít know that theyíre always best served in nonfiction form. Itís so raw. You canít step behind a curtain and say ďthis isnít me, itís a character,Ē youíre exposed. And after a while that feels too uncomfortable and you start to realize there are things you canít say freely in that form. For one thing, youíre talking about real people with real feelings and real law firmsí phone numbers in their real Palm Pilots.

Writers get sued for fictional portrayals too, of course. Thinly disguising events in a roman a clef is ultimately little protection and then you have people constantly wondering as they read, ďIs that part real? Did that actually happen?Ē which can derail the full submersion experience reading should be.

After I got home from the book fair, I read up a little on some of the memoirists. One of them has written a book on writing personal essays. Apparently sheís stirred up some controversy by admitting sheís not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when she writes. She squishes together different events and disparate people and of course makes up entire conversations. Yup, she makes stuff up. Sheís writing about events that took place decades ago. Who remembers that fully? I remember certain events with clarity, situations that carried emotional freight. But I donít remember enough to tell my life as a satisfying story. If I were to write a book about my childhood, Iíd probably fudge all over the place to make it feel real for you. Is it wrong to do that? It feels kind of wrong to me and kind of right too. Is the goal in memoir writing to impart a journalistic purity to the work or is it to tell a compelling story that happens to (mostly) be true?

Itís a whole lot easier, I think, to write the same story as fiction. There you have the license, in fact sometimes the imperative, to make stuff up. Ironically, I think you can get closer to the fundamental emotional truth that way, without the constraints of real life getting in the way.

Why then does anyone ever write memoir instead of fiction? I think because thereís something compelling about knowing that this really happened, that itís all true. I think thatís why people have trouble with deviations from this reality, when they find out about the fudges. Because it makes the story less real and therefore less valuable as a touchstone.

I think both are valid, both have their purpose and meaning, both inform and shape our sense of an experience, a life. As a writer, you have to measure the story itself, let it tell you which to write. Do you want freedom or do you want verisimilitude? Which kind of reality do you seek this time?

Posted by Tamar at May 10, 2004 09:31 PM

"Do you want freedom or do you want verisimilitude?"

You can't have both? The best fiction frees you to resemble the truth, does it not?

Posted by: otto at May 10, 2004 10:58 PM

Reread my post. Third from bottom paragraph. I agree. Nevertheless, there's a kind of "this really happened" truth that you can never get from fiction, for obvious reasons.

Posted by: Tamar at May 11, 2004 11:15 PM