Since I’ve written memoirs and am close to completing my first novel, when the question of differences in writing fiction and memoir came to me in response to a blog post, you’d have thought I’d be able to respond right off the bat. But, I was stumped. By definition, memoirs (based on the factual happenings in the author’s life) and novels (story made up by the author) are different, but how else?
Without making a conscious decision about style at the time, I blurred the lines between memoir and fiction when I wrote my memoir Growing Up Country as creative nonfiction. As author Lee Gutkind described it, “the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”
I use some of the same techniques in writing both memoir and fiction.
Visualization. Before I can write, I have to be able to see the places and people I’m writing about. Recalling the details for my memoir was as easy as closing my eyes and mentally walking into the barn on our farm, smelling new-cut hay, or seeing my grandma’s rolled down nylons.
To write historical fiction set in the WWI era, I had to be able to see the places and people just as clearly. I chose a Victorian house I’d been in often as my character’s home. That way I knew how the rooms flowed; I could imagine the furniture. I visited the Living History Farm in Des Moines where I talked with the interpreters at the 1900’s farm and attended a funeral at the 1880 Victorian house. I found pictures and videos. Anything that would let me immerse myself in the time so that it was as real to me as if I’d lived then myself.
Research played a role in both my memoir and in the novel. My family was the research source for the memoir. Memory plays tricks on everyone and to the extent I could, I verified the details I included about farm life. Research for my novel went to a much deeper level and took on a life of its own. I am thankful every day for the Internet where I can learn to drive a Model T or set up a professional photo studio.
Though the techniques are similar, the challenges in writing memoir and fiction have been different for me.
Imagination vs. Reality – One of greatest challenges in writing fiction has been that I’m used to writing based on facts. The writing I’d done during 30+ years in public relations and marketing was journalist/business writing – all based on the facts of client products. My memoir was based on the reality of my life. With my novel, even though I started with a few actual places and dates and events in mind, the rest is the product of my imagination.
I’ve come to enjoy the ability to add people and events when the story required them. When my manuscript was all but complete, I realized the need for another character and a minor subplot. I was amazed at how simple it was to develop this man, create a life and motivations for him, and retrofit him into an existing story. It took some time, but I’ve come to revel in the freedom of “making it up.”
The Story Arc. Both memoir and fiction have to tell a good story. Structured as a series of relatively independent short stories, my memoir did not adhere to the standard novel story arc. Yes, there is a gentle progression in my memoir from stories when I’m younger to those when I’m a little older, from memories that are more naïve to those that are more mature and challenging. But these progressions are not as structured or dramatic as those of successful fiction.
Learning the craft of novel writing has been an ongoing delight, from inciting incident to crisis, climax, and resolution. In three acts. With escalating pulses. Some writers may know this inherently; I have to learn it. All fun, but a definite difference.
These are the similarities and differences I see in writing fiction and memoir. Writers – What differences do you see? Readers – This could all be behind the scenes shop talk, but are there differences you see in the way fiction and memoirs are written?