It is sometimes said that fiction is more “true” than facts. The implication is that fiction is free to go beyond experience and to plumb certain kinds of truth – especially emotional truth – more easily than pure memoir can. But the relationship between memoir and fiction runs even deeper than that.
This topic is closely related to another on this site: truth in life stories. But, as Mark Twain pointed out, “Truth is stranger than fiction . . . because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Still, memoir writers have lots to learn from fiction, including the techniques that make some stories more effective and memorable than others.
Many of the following links focus on stories that do not purport to be literally true – on works that refuse to worry about truth and instead depend as much on imagination as on experience.
There are many reasons to convert life into fiction. If memory is elusive and often questionable, many writers use it as the starting point for their work and let their fancy roam. An even more important reason is that it is hard to face the unvarnished truth privately; it is harder yet to tell it to others. One solution is to convert obnoxious and voluble Uncle Leon into a sneaky friend of the family named Roger and then to allow his altered personality to toy with what Leon might have done in fictional contexts. And a fabricated story could illustrate how that embarrassing situation at the family’s holiday dinner could play out on the street during a small town’s rummage sale.
One of the underlying biases of this web site is that all memoir can be said to be based on a true story. Many of these links point to works that do not try to stick to literal, historically verifiable facts. All of them deal with situations that beg to be fictionalized..
Growing up golem: Memoir as fantasy story
There’s more than one kind of truth. Verifiable scientific facts sometimes mean less to us than the feelings that haunt us as we grow up.
Sheila Heti and Jian Ghomeshi: Memoir in the selfie age
Two writers discuss the difference between memoirs and fiction, including an insight from the point of view of readers, who can imagine themselves in a memoir but not in a novel.
Edy Poppy talks sex, love, and boredom with Siri Hustvedt
To get at emotional truth, it is sometimes necessary to get away from objective truth. The author in this interview has worked at length with this insight.
Bill Shankly: how much of Red or Dead is fact and how much fiction?
For a variety of reasons, this review will be more of interest to memoir writers than the book itself will be to most readers. Implicit in it is a cautionary tale, a warning of the risks for a writer who piles up words without thinking about what (non-literary) effects they might have on readers.
Writing technique: The rule of three
Many fictional techniques can be adapted to memoir writing as well. The three questions here could become something like this: What happened? How did I react? What effect did the event have on me, either immediately or later? The third question gets into reflective prose and lets the reader know something more about the writer.
Ask the editor: Memoir or novel for my true story?
Whether you write a memoir or a novel, it will only be based on events. There is no single truth, only your way of seeing things. But no matter how you choose to tell the tale, you will have artistic and moral issues to consider.
Art and the abyss
This Proustian autobiographical novel, detailed and rambling, is the second in a projected series. It is revolutionary writing, an attempt to redefine the novel, a unique amalgam of memory and fictional technique.
All about my mother: Brandon Taylor on love, rage, and family
A beautifully crafted, evocative short memoir about the author’s relationship with parents. The essay gives the impression of being artless, but it touches the reader deeply as it deals with how memoir dances around truth and fiction.
Seattle writer David Shields can’t stand most novels (And memoir? Don’t get him started)
A rambling and entertaining, never boring discussion about the mythologies that inform our writing, about truth in fiction and memoir, about electronic publishing – in fact about everything (intentionally) except J.D.Salinger.
Alan Garner has vowed never to write another novel. A memoir, though, is a different matter
A novelist discusses some of the differences he encountered when he wrote a memoir after a successful career publishing fiction.