Which to Write: Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction?

By Denis Ledoux 
Denis Ledoux

Denis is currently on a virtual book tour for his Memoir Network Writing Series from which this post originated. Re-posted with permission.

There is a clear difference—a chasm really—between the choice of memoir or autobiographical fiction. While one has a choice to write one or the other, one does not have a choice to call one by the name of another. The writer owes it to the reader to be

Autobiographical fiction is plot driven.
In autobiographical fiction, life facts may be altered—made bigger or smaller, brought forward or backward in time—to entertain the reader by enhancing the plot. If something in life occurred before another event but reversing the sequence works better for the autobiographical-fiction plot, then the fiction writer can do the alteration. This is a plot driven story after all.

Memoir is premised on facts and their interpretation.
While every memoir (and, of course, this includes autobiography) must be entertaining, the instruction or mentoring of the reader rather than his/her entertainment is primary. People read memoirs to learn to be better or happier or more contributory people.

If I am the father of a suicide, I might read a memoir to learn how another parent faced—and survived—the same situation. I am not interested in entertainment although I do not want to be bored. I expect the text to be the truth of the situation of having lost a child to suicide and not an imaginative fabrication—fiction—of how the author might have faced the situation. If the author says that events happened and they happened in a certain sequence, I have a right to expect that they occurred and in that sequence. Otherwise, I will be misled.

(A stunning example of false mentoring is Anais Nin who led her readers to believe she was a single woman heroically pursuing the artist’s life. The fact was she was married to a wealthy man who bankrolled her life and permitted her to write without any need to consider where her rent or food money would come from. Many people believed Nin was supporting herself and living in poverty and allowed themselves to be falsely mentored.)

Examples of memoir or autobiography
I am reading a book now that is a memoir but which is focused on the unusual and the exotic in the life of the writer. Knowing we share some similar life situations, I approached the memoir anticipating learning how the author dealt with similar inputs as mine. What I found was a lot of cute anecdotes in the memoir. Clearly, the author is out to entertain me. (It almost feels like a “beach read.”) This is a mistake as far as my needs are concerned. I don’t feel I can trust this writer to mentor me. Since I have reasons other than mentoring to be reading this particular memoir, I will probably finish it.

Recently, I did finish a piece of autobiographical fiction which I thought was memoir. I was uncomfortable with the presentation. It was a bit too detailed Here is an example of the sort of writing I am referring to: “I turned my head to the left as aromas of my grandmother’s stew to which she had added too much allspice wafted towards me. I looked out the stained window at the two brown birds on the green lawn chair. Beyond, the dog played on the patio whose right side had missing tiles.” Now, no fifty-year-old remembers these details of decades ago much less a six-year-old notice them.

I went on the Internet to scout out what was happening. I learned—as I suspected—that I was dealing with autobiographical fiction. It was being presented as memoir.

Like playing tennis
Memoir writing, because it forces you to face the facts and interpret them, is like playing tennis with the net up. Much more difficult and, because it forces the writer to deal with the difficulties of a life, is perhaps more satisfying—at least it is for me. Autobiographical fiction allows the writer to lower the net every once in a while.

Writing about your life as fiction can be fine, but you owe it to the reader to present it as fiction and not as memoir. There is an implicit contract between the memoir writer and the memoir reader that what is written down is fact, the truth—to the best of the writer’s ability and knowledge.

Action Step
Review recent writing with the clear distinctions I set above between memoir and autobiographical fiction.  Remember it is your right to choose either, but you do not have a choice about informing your reader. You must identify your book as memoir or autobiographical fiction.

Denis Ledoux is founder of The Memoir Network and author of Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. His current project is The Memoir Network Writing Series.

Photo courtesy Denis Ledoux

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