WriteChatWednesday: Memoir vs. Fiction

What is #WriteChatWednesday?

We believe what makes Kaylie Jones Books special is the way our writers and staff support one another. Kaylie Jones Books is truly a collective of writers who believe in sharing their knowledge and experience.

#WriteChatWednesday is our latest blog series written for writers, by writers. Each month, our writers will be answering questions about writing and publishing submitted by our readers.

Meet Our Panelists

MCKENZIE CASSIDY

MCKENZIE CASSIDY

HERE LIES A FATHER

MCKENZIE CASSIDY is a writer, higher education marketer, and professor living in southwest Florida.

JUDY MANDEL

JUDY MANDEL

EDITOR

JUDY L. MANDEL is a writing coach, teacher, and editor. She is the author of the NY Times Bestseller, REPLACEMENT CHILD - A MEMOIR.

LAUREN J. SHARKEY

LAUREN J. SHARKEY

INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER

LAUREN J. SHARKEY's debut novel, INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER, is forthcoming in 2020 and based on her experience as a Korean American adoptee.

PATRICIA A. SMITH

PATRICIA A. SMITH

THE YEAR OF NEEDY GIRLS

PATRICIA A. SMITH’s nonfiction has appeared in several anthologies, including One Teacher in Ten: Gay & Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories


Let us introduce ourselves…

MC: I’m Mckenzie Cassidy and my novel HERE LIES A FATHER is loosely based on learning about my father’s three secret families. My book originally began as a memoir, but after struggling through the project I realized that writing fiction liberated me to be more honest with my story.

JM: My name is Judy L. Mandel and my book is REPLACEMENT CHILD – A MEMOIR about my growing up as a replacement for my sister who was killed in a plane crash before I was born.

LJS: I’m Lauren J. Sharkey, and my forthcoming novel, INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER, is based on my experience as a Korean American adoptee.

PS: My name is Patricia Smith and my novel, THE YEAR OF NEEDY GIRLS, begins with an incident that is closely based on a true event.

If your novel started as a memoir, why did you opt to switch to fiction?

MC: When I first started writing my story I had decided it was going to be a memoir because my background was in non-fiction. I had worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, studied the craft, and read every coming-of-age memoir I could get my hands on to prepare myself for the process of getting it all down on paper. My problem ended up being emotional distance. Every craft book outlines the need for distance between a writer and his or her subject. I had read the advice myself, but ignored it. I struggled to write my memoir and I obsessed over insignificant details like dates, times, and the exact wording of conversations. Creatively, I was blocked and I didn’t know what to do. Eventually I came to the realization that I was too close to my subject and many of the things I needed to research or figure out for my story were out of my reach (both logistically and psychologically). After a few weeks of struggling with the project, Kaylie Jones suggested I write my story as a novel. I was apprehensive at first because I didn’t have as much experience writing fiction, but once I let myself off the hook my mind opened up and the writing flowed. Stephen King once said “fiction is the truth inside the lie” and that’s exactly what I found after switching genres. The spooky part was that what I produced as fiction was far more true and honest than anything I’d included in my previous memoir pages.

LJS: INCONVENIENT DAUGHTER was born from the thesis I wrote for my MFA program. I had originally set out to write a memoir detailing my experience as a Korean American adoptee in America. As I moved through the project, I found myself encountering significant structural issues. I kept reworking chapters and events in order to be faithful to the form of memoir. In the end, I wound up changing the work to a novel in order to achieve a narrative which made sense.

PS: I never intended the book to be a memoir–although like my main character, Deirdre Murphy, I, too, was a French teacher in a Massachusetts private school. But the arc of the story isn’t mine. I was interested in examining some what if’s that were not connected to my real life, and so I constructed a fictional town and fictional characters. I started off with a real event (though even that I fictionalized somewhat)and then asked “What if?” I went from there.

My family has forbidden me from writing about them, but they are integral to my story, how do I proceed?

JM: If your family has forbidden you from writing about them, I think that may be your cue to fictionalize your story and turn your memoir into a novel. Change the names and genders of your characters and they will never recognize themselves.

LJS: My family, specifically my mother, has always asked me not to write about her. But the stories, the memories, the life I’ve had with her doesn’t just belong to her. It’s not just her experience, it’s mine too. Write what’s inside you – start worrying when you’re about to sign a publishing contract.

PS: What I tell my students is to ignore your family while you’re drafting. Who knows what will become of the draft–you don’t need to worry about your family unless you’re going to publish the work, but initially, you’re still far from publishing, so why not write what compels you?

How do I tell my family I am writing a memoir?

JM:  Don’t tell them until it is absolutely necessary. That time may be when you need information from them or when you are about to be published. Then you can decide if you want them to review some of it that may pertain to them. In my case, my sister was still alive when my book was about to be published and I had her read it, telling her I would remove anything she didn’t want in the book. My priority was to not cause her any suffering with my book. It just wasn’t worth it to me. Her response was, “This is your story sis, don’t change anything.”

What sort of backlash did you receive from friends and family after your book came out and how did you deal with it?

JM: I wouldn’t say it was backlash, but one friend who I mention in the book wrote me this note on Facebook: “Oh wow, I am in your book, but a cautionary tale.” Then my high school boyfriend who shows up in the book found me on Facebook and wanted me to know that he has gotten much better at sex since then. I did not ask for proof.

LJS: I do worry about how friends and family are going to respond – if people are going to try and find themselves or “expose” the real life counterparts of my characters. I plan on reminding people the book is fiction, and that any resemblance to real-life characters and events is coincidental. Obviously there are going to be people who won’t swallow a line like that, but for me, this book isn’t about calling people out or placing blame – it’s about finally having an opportunity to share the story that’s burned within me for so long.

I’m worried about accuracy. I can’t remember exact dates, times, and what was said in a conversation. Can I still write a memoir?

MC: The answer is yes. I was obsessed with these details in the beginning of my own project and it was hindering my creative process. From a craft standpoint both memoir and fiction are produced the same, with all of the elements that make up a good story, but one is labeled “true” and the other is “fabricated.” But I don’t feel it’s as simple as that. Fiction writers frequently use their own life to fill in the gaps of a story or model an entire plot after something that happened to them. Memoir is all about reflecting on personal experiences – not recording precise historical accounts like a newspaper article or history textbook – so writers only need to be honest to their own memories and feelings within the timeframe of the story. In this way a writer can produce a story and then decide in the end whether they want to label it as fiction or memoir. Now, as a warning, if you do plan to write a memoir you’ll need to make sure what you write actually happened – don’t be the next James Frey – but also don’t stress too much about providing exact dates, times, and conversations. Nobody remembers those anyway. In a nutshell, it’s really easy to switch from memoir to fiction, but not so easy to go from fiction to memoir (but it can be done).

JM: My opinion is that you can still write your memoir if you don’t have exact dates and word-for-word memory of conversations. I think it was Mary Karr who said, it doesn’t really matter if you wore a yellow dress or a green dress that day, but what the truth of the moment was in that situation. Or the example of writing the scene of her first kiss and remembering the smell of Juicy Fruit gum on his breath. The feeling of the scene would be the same if it was really bubblegum. My advice is to stay as close as possible to actual facts you remember, research what you can as far as accuracy of dates and places to tell the story that is true for you.

LJS: For me, memoir isn’t about being historically accurate. Hell, it’s not even about being factual. It’s about being true to the spirit of the story and the events you’re writing about. Once you start inventing, that’s when it stops being memoir.

PS: Here’s some advice from Ann Patchett’s afterward to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face though I’m paraphrasing. As Patchett tells the story, many cancer survivors would come to Lucy Grealy’s readings and they were always amazed at her ability to recall details from her childhood. What she told them — I didn’t remember my childhood; I wrote it.

You’ll be amazed how much your memory comes back once you start writing your story, too. Start with what compels you the most. Patricia Hampl says our memory is like a series of slides, and she suggests that we ask ourselves “Why this slide?” Why do I remember THAT particular thing and not something else? Work with concrete details. Write scenes. Let each detail reveal another.

What legal trouble could I get into for writing a memoir?

JM: If you are concerned about legal ramifications of writing your memoir it is best to consult an attorney about those specific concerns. That said, truth is usually the ultimate defense.

LJS: A few years ago, I went to an AWP panel on this exact topic. Part of me wants to say it was actually called “Legal for Memoir Writers”. Essentially, what I took away from the panel was, in order to get sued, the person suing you has to prove considerable loss (they lost their job, their reputation has been tarnished, etc.) to put forth a solid case. The people who threaten to sue are usually just trying to scare you into not writing about them. If it’s something you’re really concerned about, then I definitely recommend consulting with a lawyer.

Even though you published your book as fiction, did people still attempt to expose the truth in your story? How did you deal with it?

LJS: Someone once told me people are always looking to expose the lies in memoir, and the truth in fiction. When I was giving drafts of my novel to readers, I had someone ask me, “Is this that guy you dated after college?” Everyone is going to take away different things from your work, but your job as the writer is to give readers the opportunity to decide for themselves what is “true” or not…not to decide for them.

PS: We’re always writing truth, whether fiction or nonfiction. But if you’re asking whether or not people try to decide what “really happened” or not, sure. I think people always like to wonder if something really happened in our fiction. I think that’s why people are drawn to memoir, too, and why they like movies “based on a true story.” There’s something about knowing the events are “real” that interests people.

I’m worried my memoir is too similar to other memoirs – should I not write it?

JM: Even if your memoir contains some of the same facts of other memoirs, no writer will tell the story in the same way. Be sure your unique voice comes through and your unique perspectives and sensibilities.

PS: Your memoir is YOUR memoir. Write it. No one else experiences the world the way you do.  Because YOU’RE the one telling the story, it will necessarily be different from anyone else’s out there. I think we all feel that way to some extent — my novel is like many other novels — but we also tell our stories in our own unique ways.

Closing Thoughts

LJS: Write for you, and no one else.

PS: I write a lot of personal essays, but I’ve yet to write a memoir. The hard part for me is figuring out a story arc complex enough for a memoir (not sure “complex” is the right word but…). Why tell THIS story? Why does it matter? What IS the story?

To begin writing nonfiction, those questions hardly matter. Writing nonfiction can help us make sense of the world & help us to understand ourselves and others. But I do think for a memoir to be effective, the writer needs to understand the question, why am I telling this story?

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