Memoir versus Fiction

Some of you may or may not know I am in the process of writing my second book. I have a draft manuscript completed and I am going through the difficult task of editing my work. I realize I should follow the experts’ advice and have a professional do a copy-edit. I would, if I can find someone in an affordable price range. However, that is not what this post is about.

I am struggling with the issue to whether publish this book as a memoir or a fiction based on my life events. I am not sure if either genre has more impact over the other in the book market. I know both have their advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps if I lay out some detail of my dilemma, you will help me in the decision process.

By definition, a memoir needs to be truthful. Yet, we know many authors of memoirs embellish the story to make it more impactful and captivating to the reader. So, to what degree can the author embellish and meet the definition of a memoir?

I found a blog by Kari Morgan who writes for the Freelance Writing website. She wrote, “…While both fiction and memoirs tell compelling stories, they are ultimately two different genres of writing. A memoir tells a true story about a specific time in an author’s life, such as childhood, a period of illness, or a relationship with a family member. By contrast, the author invents fictional stories for the purpose of entertainment. Memoirs and fiction differ in their use of facts, their protagonists and their sources of description and detail.”

Kari continues, “…The biggest difference between memoirs and fiction is the role real events play in their development. In a memoir, writers have an obligation to deliver a true and accurate depiction of their experiences. …while writing about memory can be hazy territory, memoir writers should make every effort to be honest and authentic. However, because fiction is largely invented by its authors, they have more leeway with accuracy. For example, although Harper Lee shares the same background and basic experiences as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel’s events are heavily fictionalized.”

The writing of my second book begins over 60 years ago when I was a child. I had trouble remembering all the detail, so, I told the story as accurately as I could remember. Any embellishment was when I included dialogue to make the event realistic and compelling to the reader.

I found a similar article from a post written by the staff of Writer’s Relief. What I like about it, it gave me some examples.

“…SITUATION ONE. The author has written a book based on his life. The story is faithful to his experiences in the way that all creative nonfiction tries to recreate stories from memories as accurately as possible. The author has changed the characters’ names to protect identities, but otherwise everything is true…”

The problem: The author values his life experience and wants to pitch his book as a memoir. But the names have been changed, so in that way, it’s not entirely truthful.

Solution: In your query letter, explain the situation clearly: My book is an accurate memoir of my life story, though I have changed some names…”

“…SITUATION TWO. An author has written a book based loosely on her life. The story is very familiar to her because she has lived much of it. She has changed characters’ names. She has also taken liberties here and there in order to make the story more compelling, and she amped up her ending to be a little flashier.

The problem: The writer knows that small parts of her tale are fictionalized (perhaps she added a pet dog, a villain, or a love interest), but the larger story is mostly true. Because her real-life experience is so out of the ordinary, she feels it’s important that readers understand that the things she’s writing about actually happened to her (for the most part). Is this a memoir or a novel? Fiction or nonfiction?

Solution: In this case, we feel the author would be best served by calling her story a novel. Memoir promises truth, and so if the book is not as truthful as the author can possibly make it, then it is not a memoir. In her professional writer’s biography, the author might note that her own story is similar to the story of the novel—though not exactly the same…”

I honestly feel that my writing as it stands now is somewhere between the two examples above. Perhaps if you read an excerpt from the manuscript it might help. In one of my earlier blogs entitled “A Story of Developing Self Confidence” (the title has a link to the post), I tell of about the summer I turned 12. With the blog, I added text to introduce the piece. At the end, I wrote a conclusion, which expounds on the message I wanted to share.

In the manuscript of the same incident, I added dialogue to capture the readers’ interest and make it read more realistic. The overall story did not change, however, in both writings, I state it was a rainy day and we couldn’t work in the fields. To be honest, I do not remember why we weren’t working that day. I’m not sure all of us boys were up in the hayloft when I fell through the loft opening. But, does that detail really matter in capturing the story and expounding the message? Does this type of accuracy determine whether it’s a memoir or fiction?

The total manuscript has incidents similar to the one you just read. Sometimes I embellished more with dialogue, descriptive locations, or the time to gain the same effect to illustrate my point. If the book only included the chapters recounting those life stories, I would be satisfied with it being fiction. I would add a declaration  stating it’s based on my life experiences.

However, I wrote a conclusion section to explain how I viewed and resolved these incidents 50 to 60 years later. With including this type of conclusion, it would negate its purpose if the genre were fiction. To be of value, I feel it needs to be a memoir.

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion: “…The obvious was Dad had an anger problem and was unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The anger was a character flaw and was the underlying reason he had problems with self-confidence. He compensated his lack of confidence with being a perfectionist and an overachiever. That perfectionist carried over in him demanding that I meet the same standards. When I didn’t, the results were harsh discipline.”

So, my friends and followers, in your opinion should the book be a memoir or a fiction? One day, I go with fiction. The next day, to be impactful it needs to be a memoir.

So if you were in my shoes, what would you do? Please leave me your comments telling me your answer to my dilemma. Tell me why you would recommend one over the other. I do value your opinion. Thank you.

37 Replies to “Memoir versus Fiction”

  1. I am for memoir because that reflects who you are. I think it also gives you more motivation. You try to communicate your true feelings. Because even your blog you ask us to discover who you are. This is just my attempt to give you feedback on your question.
    Your brother
    Don

    1. Thank you Bro. You are always welcome to comment on my site. Hey, how about some new pictures for my website. I’m proud to show your work. Love you.

  2. First off Chuck, I just published my book, “If Only I Had A Dad: Finding Freedom From Fatherlessness.” I addressed some of the issues you mentioned and several more. Secondly, I hate a box, any kind of box, unless it is full of groceries I need to get to my 5th floor apartment. The problem with experts, in my opinion, is they agreed to not grow any further, at some point. Otherwise their expertise might change. I say, write your book! The way you feel it, envision it, and perceive its value. If you’re self-publishing you can market it in more than one genre. If you’re dealing with a publisher they might insist on placement. You can preview my book on Amazon and get a feel for how I wrote my story. I just turned sixty, myself. Best wishes for whatever you decide.

    1. Thank you Rick for your comments and great advice. I self published my first book and I will this one too. My concern is avoiding problems down the road when I am marketing the book. It matters not to me which genre, but not everyone is as liberal as you. I will put your book on my ‘to read list’. Age wise, I’ve got you by ten years (not smiling). Thanks and God Bless.

  3. Chuck, I like Rick’s response above “write your book! The way you feel it, envision it, and perceive its value.” As you know, Cherries is a fictional account of my time in Vietnam, but readers comment that they are certain that the story mirrors my accounts. The dialogue was all fabricated to make the story flow better – this is the main reason for making it a fiction novel. However, I maintained a diary which was used as an outline to create Cherries. The title contains the word “novel”, yet, naysayers come forth to chastise me that the book does not follow the guidelines for a novel. Cherries is listed in Amazon as a memoir, action adventure novel, war story among others. Write it and call it a memoir and fictional novel. Don’t stress out over this…not worth it! / John

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for the great advice. This post had two purposes; (a) promote my next book, (b) seek advice on memoir or fiction. I am cautious revealing too much of the book. You know, keep the suspense to gain interest. I’ll say this, the book will either anger you or send you to retrieve the tissue box. Perhaps both. My desire to share my story which too many people can relate. A memoir gives it more impact in my opinion. Thanks for the advice. God Bless.

  4. Chuck – I would go with novel based on your life story. You want to lay the truth out there, you lived these experiences. Bu novelizing it you have made it real, and it is factual in many areas, based on your experiences. It is a memoir, but it is also novelized. “Blackbird” by Jennifer Lauck is a famous memoir that was fictionalized. It was billed as “A novel based on the life of the author, Jennifer Lauck” and it won many awards. Good luck, and I look forward to seeing how you choose to go!

    1. Hi Connie – Thank you for taking the time to visit and give me your opinion. My first book was fiction and losely based on my life story (so losely I don’t want to mislead anyone). But this book could be considered a memoire if the requirements for memoire allow for some embellishment. I agree, going with it as fiction, does give me more latitude. Again, thanks for help.

  5. I’m no expert in this, Chuck, but I’d go with what others have said and write the book the way you want to write it. I’m writing a book based on my life story but feel far happier by adding fiction to it, simply because I can’t remember all the details of certain events. I can put you in touch with a couple of memoir writers if it helps and you’d like to ask their opinions.

    1. Thank you Hugh for taking the time and giving me your opinion. If these individuals are willing to take some questions, then yes I would be interested. I think the easiest route would be as fiction, yet would I lose my impact of the story?

      1. My own opinion is that you wouldn’t lose any impact, but you got to go the way you feel is right for you.

        The two writers I was referring to are also bloggers. Links to their blogs are below. When you contact them just mention my name and say that I sent you their way. I’m sure both will be delighted to help.

        Debby
        https://dgkayewriter.com/about/

        She’s on vacation at the moment, so may be a while before she picks up your message.

        Sherri
        https://sherrimatthewsblog.com/about/

        She’s busy writing her memoirs at the moment. I’ve met Sherri a few times and I know she’d be delighted to help anyway she can.

  6. I not a huge fan of memoirs I much prefer fiction but it does sounds yours in firmly in the memoirs camp. When I occasionally read one I expect the writer to change events or have a differing memory from others so I wouldn’t worry to much about adding the odd bit of fiction as long as you are honest with your readers.

    If you don’t mind a little advise about your blog; it looks great but you have to go looking for the latest article I would consider changing your format it’s a bit easier for potential readers.

    As for your book don’t forget copy editing is often the last in the editing process. Most book need a structural and line edit. If you can’t afford an editor get some good books on the subject and do it yourself although that is very hard.

    I got a friend to do a structural edit for me but i’m going to pay for a line and copy edit when it’s ready.

    Good luck with the book. I’m off to read about the haybarn.

    1. Eric, I thrive on advice from individuals with expertise. I agree about the website. I recently changed the theme from WordPress and I have not been satisfied. I plan on working on it today and change themes. I will also take your advice and put my blogs (post) on the static page.

  7. Chuck, I like fiction, and I love memoir. If your target audience is readers of memoir then you will need to publish it as memoir to hit that one in the bull’s eye. I say go where your heart longs to be led. At present, I’m reading “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr (It’s a highly recommended how-to book.). I’m hoping to learn as much as I can before editing and revising my memoir draft any further.
    Blessings as you decide ~ Wendy

    1. Thank you for coming to my site, taking the time to read my post and give me your opinion. I agree that writing it as a memoir gives it more credence. What bother me are the critics. That is why I ask the question, what level of embellishment is acceptable for a memoir. What will the literary community and readers accept before condemning? Even when you state it is fiction, based on your life story, you are at risk. Believe me when I say I learned the hard way. What happened to the tolerance and the Christian forgiveness? God Bless.

  8. Hi Chuck!
    At last I have had a chance to read this post as well as the post you linked to about your experiences at your uncle Hank’s farm when you were 12. (Great story BTW). I wanted to take the time to get to know your writing a little better before responding the best I can. I’m honoured and humbled that Hugh gave you my details. Debby (D G Kaye) I know will also be able to give you some great advice. Both Hugh and Debby are great friends of mine through blogging, and it’s a pleasure to meet you too.
    Right…so, in my humble opinion, ha!…I would say definitely you need to write your book as a memoir. I also read through the great comments here and was very interested to see that Wendy recommended Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I was going to say the same thing. I wrote a review on her book in 2015 if you would like to take a look. Here’s the link: https://sherrimatthewsblog.com/2015/10/02/book-review-the-art-of-memoir-by-mary-karr/
    It might give you some valuable pointers about the issue of truth in memoir. I agree with Karr in that, if it is to be a memoir, you have to tell the truth and the whole truth. Anything less, even a bit of embellishment here, or some little piece of fiction added there, makes it not a memoir. Otherwise it is a novel based on true life, which, to my mind, is a very different beast.
    Dialogue obviously can’t be verbatim. My memoir takes place between 1978 and 1981, the main thrust of the story and events that happened during that time in my life, but I weave in other elements to the story from my earlier life. I can’t possibly remember exact conversations, but I can use some dialogue based on my memory of the kind of conversations I would have had with others and the way we would have talked. The same with the way I would have dressed, acted, the music I listened to. But this also has to be set against the internal dialogue.
    What I’ve found helpful is if I can’t remember what was said at all, or even what happened exactly (as in your example of whether or not it rained, or those boys were or weren’t there in the barn the day of your fall), then it’s best to write it as a thought. As in… I don’t know why we had the afternoon off that day, but there I was in the barn given some time off from my chores. Rather than say it was raining when you don’t actually remember whether it was raining or not. It’s better to leave something out if you can’t remember, rather than keep it in and embellish it and so the minute you do that, you’re turning it into fiction. Your memoir needs to be authentic, true, just as you remember. You are telling your story as you remember it, which of course, will be from a different perspective to anyone else there with you at the time. But that’s the point. It’s your experience that matters, the story told through your eyes as you bring us, the reader in, to feel, live and breathe your story, the one you own, the one that belongs to you and that only you can tell.
    The issue of names is a sticky one. And of course, there is the legal issue. I have kept all original names, but I intend to change some, but not the main person relevant to my story, because he is no longer alive. Several from his family I need to mention I have had no contact with for over 30 years and I have no idea if alive or dead. Situation one in your post describes my memoir exactly, so I thank you for posting the solution, which is what I was hoping would be the way around it.
    Mary Karr covers this and many other aspects of the crafting of memoir, broken down into helpful chapters so you can read the ones that specifically apply to you. I would highly recommend it.
    I hope all this has helped somewhat – apologies for the blog post comment! – and if you would like to discuss this further, do let me know.
    Happy writing!
    Sherri

    1. Hi Sherri,
      I got the dreadful flu, which was going around in our area and I have been out of touch for a couple weeks. In review of things, I can’t remember if I ever responded to your comments you left. If I did not, please accept my apology.
      You recommended Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and I am currently reading it now. When reading Chapter two – “The Truth Contract”, I got excited because she gave acceptance to the memoirist where recall is not perfect and you use embellishment to fill in the story; especially with dialogue. Then when I got to Chapter 8 – “Huckster, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars” she pulled the rug out from under me (sorry about the cliché). She really attacked those authors that included false detail no matter how minor.
      I’m back to my same dilemma, memoir or fiction. Unless by the time I finish Ms. Karr’s book, I feel differently, I leaning towards making it fiction based on my life story. It seems simpler and safer; yet, I still feel it would lose impact. My inexperience as a writer seems to block some of the rational. If the book is fiction, how can you include an epilogue or conclusion where you share with the reader what life lessons you learned and how your life has changed? Even at the beginning, if you tell the reader the story is fiction but based on your life story, will the reader put any value to your conclusion section?
      Perhaps I should have stayed in my safe world as a CPA. At least things are more black and white (I’m laughing at myself). I do appreciate the time you took to read my work and give me your advice. If you can answer some of the above questions, it would be greatly appreciated. Hugs.

      1. Hi Chuck,
        Writing a memoir is certainly no easy task – I’ll join in with your joke about staying safe as a CPA, as I get exactly what you mean! I can understand you leaning towards making it fiction, but you do bring up a very good point about the epilogue. Hmmm…I will have to give that some thought. I hope we can continue on with our conversation as time allows. Hugs back… 🙂

  9. Writing is art and art is writing. To me, writing is what forms the universe. It helps is experience and explore something new or something that we have already know. Writing is word that are pile onto one another, which later tells a story. I agree with what Rick said “write your book” Show us and let us feel the pain, the joy, and let us feel the move from one point to the next, let us cry with you, and writing, as far as I can tell, is your force. Write your book. If it falls into fiction, let it, if it falls into autobiography, biography, memoir, let it. What matters the most is how the words move from right to left on the page. Keep writing and all best to you!

    1. Hi Oristel,
      Thank you for your beautifully expressed comments. I agree with you and the others that my story needs to be told no matter what genre I chose. My concern that if I publish it as a memoir, that I do not violate any constraints of a memoir. Currently I am reading a couple of books from experts in memoire writing. I am in hopes that their guidance will help me make a final decision. Thanks again for following my writing.

  10. I wonder if you could get away with just calling it creative non-fiction… Haha! Not quite as marketable a label as memoir or fiction though, is it?

    I wouldn’t call what you’re describing fiction, even if there are some fictional aspects or embellishments to it, if only because some readers might not agree with the label when they start reading it. But that’s just me.

    Reading this post has taken me back to university, where we would study books that swam around in the grey area between fiction and non fiction. It’s very interesting to see how people market and present these things.

    1. Hi Pooky,
      I appreciate taking the time to come by and leave a comment. You are right, this is a grey area. I have read several memoir’s and Mary Karr’s The Art of a Memoir. What I want to prevent, is publishing a book that draws negative attention from the literary community. That would be death to the book and me as a writer. I know I am obsessing, yet I don’t want to make a mistake. When you self-publish, you can list it in multiple genre. However, I think listing the book both ways is asking for trouble. I’m close to sending the manuscript to an editor. With all the great opinions (including yours) I’m receiving plus my editor assistance, I’m sure we can make it work. Thanks again – Hugs.

  11. I don’t agree with some of the points you cite about what separates a memoir from a novel. From Sally Cronin (Smorgasbord Invitation) it’s “sometimes more authentic to bend the truth rather than create a new one”

    YES! and truth is generally more relevant than accuracy! I think splitting those hairs is totally unnecessary. Every little detail of your life wouldn’t be compelling to most readers – and ‘real life” dialogue is seldom reader-ready.

    To me, it seems that your dilemma has more to do with moving from black and white to grey. Writing a memoir with”honesty” doesn’t mean telling “the whole truth” and nothing but – you still have to weave a good tale.

    Remember – it is impossible to please ALL of the people all of the time. Either way, there will be nay-sayers and you simply must be prepared to think “Thank you for sharing” and hang on to what you believe. Whichever way you go, don’t apologize for it or attempt to over-explain.

    Do you have a community of beta readers? Their responses might help you decide which genre will be easier to market — which is actually the point: which will get your book in the hands of the greatest number of readers who can and will appreciate it.

    I agree with Hugh, Rick and pdoggbiker – go with your own instincts. I also believe that “memoir” will have more impact than fiction – at least it would for me – but conniejjasperson has an opinion worth considering before you close the book on the topic.

    BTW – the link here from Work in Progress shows up blue but doesn’t “click” – so you might want to go see what the WordPress Gremlins have done to it (I frequently have to relink things after one of their “improvements.”
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    1. Hi Madelyn,
      You bring up so many great points. In my response to Sherri, I reference the book “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr. I also have done some other research and realize as you state, there are no real black or white rules. I’m not sure where I found one alternative, but it recommended at the beginning you put an Author’s Note. In it you explain that the book is written as best as your memory would allow. You admit that it might not be totally accurate, but it is your story as best as you can recall. I found several memoirs that did use this technique.

      I wrote this post with two objectives. First I wanted to draw attention to my site by soliciting my followers to give their opinion on the subject. The subject was actually confusing to me and I got a great response. I’m still drawing attention to the subject. I feel I succeeded to my first objective. Second, I wanted the post to begin the early marketing process of my second book. I hope the suspense of the genre I chose will draw more attention once the book is published. My second objective will be determined once the book is released.

      What I didn’t expect was the interest and the varied opinions the post enticed. This post has drawn more attention to my site than any other post. I received a bonus, in that individuals are now reading and writing comments of previous post. This is a pleasant surprise. I have to give credit to those individuals, like you and several others, who by your reputation in the bog community brought attention to my site. So I am indebted to all of you and I hope I can return the favor. Thank you again for supporting and following my writing. HUGS.

      1. I have “a reputation” in the blogging community? Oh dear – I don’t know whether to be flattered or frightened. (PLEASE don’t tell me what it is – I’m rather enjoying wondering – lol.)

        I’m not surprised that this post drew a lot of attention – bloggers love to ring in with opinions about writing and the process of same, I’ve noticed. Isn’t it great when older content continues to get attention?

        mgh

          1. NOT necessary – few people get it right the first time – and you’d have been mortified if I let it go on, right? (besides, most of my washcloths are awaiting their turn in a washing machine).

            But today the laundry must wait – I’m heading out to an Earth Day Patio Party at the Cheers bar down the street (where everybody knows my dog’s name – lol).
            xx,
            mgh

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