Memoir or Fiction

Hello, SE readers. In my prior post, I wrote about inspiration. Today I continue along that same path and compare how one experience might spark inspiration for either a memoir or a novel. 

In a sense, all writing is fiction because memory is never totally accurate. For example, when police consider the accounts of everyone at an accident scene, the differences are notable. Even the most obvious detail, such as the color of the cars, can vary wildly. The smaller details, of license plate numbers or the year and make of the car, are rarely consistent.

Perhaps a simple story will help clarify my point. Here goes. Imagine sitting at an outside table of a busy neighborhood bar. There is much laughter as toasts are offered, drinks held high. Then suddenly everything changes.

Two cars collide in front of the bar. When the police arrive, most folks have dispersed but some customers remain. Lovers huddle a few feet from the collision. They tremble and hold each other tightly. When the police question them, they only remember the loud crash and the screams. They talk about being afraid, they ask about the victims, and they mention—more than once—that it was just an ordinary day.

The two men standing near the cars were having a drink with their friends when the accident occurred. One tells the police officer that he saw a rapidly moving vehicle and yelled loudly, “QUICK. RUN!” No one saw the impact, but they heard it as they ducked indoors. After the hit, these two men ran to help the drivers. They report seeing massive amounts of blood, hearing moans, and calling 911.

One driver is motionless behind an airbag. He is able to speak but has multiple injuries and cannot move. He tells the officer that he was hit broadside by a car that never stopped for the red light.

The driver of the other car is unconscious. She is put on life support and rushed to the hospital. When she awakens later in the day, she only remembers her husband yelling at her. She whispers to the police that she had gotten into the car, stepped on the accelerator, and fled. “I kept thinking, I gotta reach mom before he comes after me. I gotta reach her.” She remembers nothing of the accident.  

Though the above example is extreme, the fact is we process information from our unique vantage point, which is more complex than just eyesight.

If the female victim were to write a memoir and include the above scene, she would need to reconstruct the accident from second-hand information. On the other hand, if she were to write a novel and use the same scene, she’d have much more freedom.

Let’s look at both possibilities through a series of photos.

In the first, the memoirist cannot breathe, she struggles against the hands that hit her. Alternatively, the novelist creates a protagonist who is a hiker. He climbs high into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he encounters and fights a vicious wolf.

In the first story, the attacker is incarcerated. In the novel, the wolf is captured and put in a zoo.

In the memoir, the writer tells of finding healing through friendships, gardening and yoga. In her novel, the protagonist learns to walk again. In both, the ending is one of recovery.

One life-threatening event can inspire two very different stories. The writer chooses the genre and decides whether to fictionalize the event or not. Either way, the task is to capture the emotional truth. A memoir is an introspective approach, but a novel, inspired by the same event, will carry similar emotional depth — in this example, wrapped in a wildlife adventure.

Have you felt inspired to write about something personal and considered the possibility of a memoir or a novel? Have you ever wondered about some of the characters in your friend’s novel — if they were really fictional?

I’d love to hear about your choices — and your thoughts about your friend’s characters.

64 thoughts on “Memoir or Fiction

  1. Writing a memoir has never been a goal of mine, Gwen. However, my characters are convinced that the stories I write about them are memoirs of their lives. I believe every writer has a box in their psyche filled with memories, experiences, both good and bad, images, songs, books, voices––everything and anything that has had an impact in their lives one way or another. When the writer sits down to write this box opens and the things that were locked away in there inspire stories. So, in a way, a lot of truth goes into every fictional story. Great post! 😀 xo

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  2. I’ve never considered writing a memoir, Gwen, but I know that a lot of my real experiences and thoughts enter my fiction – that “write what you know” advice coming into play. But I also write some dark fiction and those experiences and thoughts are straight from my characters (not me at all. Ha ha.). And the differing perspectives of real events can be rather amazing – I notice that when getting together with my family and talking about things that happened 40-50 years ago. Wow, do our memories differ! It’s almost shocking. 🙂

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  3. Someone I knew was admitted to a care home after several falls. Her experience there was so horrific and disturbing, I wrote them into a novel to release them. Her experiences are, sadly, commonplace but I buried them in a narrative of my own. One of the first reviewers contacted me because she believed it to be a memoir – a genre that she specialises in. Like most people here, I think novelists write best when they can draw on emotions they’ve experienced themselves, even if the trigger to those was something very different to the one in the novel. We might not be on the run from an armed assailant but we do know what it’s like to be terrified, even if it was only for a few brief minutes.

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    • Oh my goodness! I’m forever stunned by how some people treat the vulnerable. As for the reviewer, she paid you the highest compliment — your fiction was real to her. Wow! Thank you, Alex, for contributing so beautifully to this conversation about genres. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a memoir and nonfiction writer, I choose to write in memoir because I write from my own experiences, so I’d never entertained the thought of writing fiction when, like many writers, my truth would still be hidden in fiction. I’d rather proudly own it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have written memoirs. Prompted by having kept the letters I wrote home to family and friends in England when my husband and I took our three young kids to live and work in Africa. As our life progressed through the years I wrote fewer letters as family visited our new life. As a result, the third book of my Zambia trilogy took a lot more thought, and on several occasions I had to write what I thought, at certain events, I would have done, rather than from the actual memory of it.

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    • So happy to meet you, Ann. Thank you for sharing about writing memoirs. I kept journals through the years, and when I wrote my memoir, I relied upon the journals. What an experience it was to walk back through time! 😉

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  6. Pingback: Memoir or Fiction #Writing #Memoirs #Fiction – Waterstone Way

  7. You bring out some very good points in this post, Gwen. Writing a memoir is limiting, but also extremely healing and personal. Fiction is free. My first four books are true stories told in fiction format. It was the only way I could separate enough from the story to tell it, as it is so personal. While I love a true story, I choose fiction over memoirs most of the time. However, that being said, I’ve read some incredible memoirs (one of which was yours). I would say there’s a bit of truth in all of our fiction writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jan. You straddled both memoir and fiction with your first four books and created masterpieces by doing so. I agree with you, there’s freedom in writing fiction and if you bring in the heart — you’ve created something remarkable. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a thought provoking post, Gwen. All of my books to date [not Sir Chocolate] are based on real events to a large extent. I do extensive research to ensure the facts are accurate and presented in a well rounded manner. Despite my best efforts, I always have to fill in some of the holes in the stories. With my mom’s book, she had gaps in her memory because she was so young during the war. Her memories were fragmented and I had to piece them together in a suitable order. In my forthcoming novel, A Ghost and His Gold, about the second Anglo Boer War in South Africa, there are three versions of events, one from the perspective of the Afrikaner people, one from the perspective of the native African people and one from the British perspective. All the reports of every event include different versions of the facts, just as you’ve stated above. I decided the only solution was to try an present all the perspective through different characters. Even with a memoir this will be true. That is why I say all my writing is fictionalised because it really is. It is my interpretation or recollection of a series of events.

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    • Oh my, Robbie, I’m so looking forward to reading A Ghost and His Gold. I love how you’ve explained the three versions of events. Congratulations on this latest achievement! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Gwen. If you’d asked me a month ago when I finished editing this book, I would have said never again. It was a massive effort to do all this research and try and get the psychology and emotion of this war correct across the three perspectives. The African perspective is a lot less in the book as there is very little written information available. I asked friends and colleagues who had grandparents who lived through this war, but there are few written and trustworthy records. Most of the African perspective is oral and, unfortunately, a lot seems to have died with the people. I’ve done my absolute best.

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  9. I use bits and pieces of likes, emotions, etc. of myself and sometimes parts of people I know that stand out–their kindness or humor, etc., but if I try to get too close to writing a fully realized person I know, it doesn’t work. People are too complicated. I’m too boring to write a memoir about my life. I’d have to make things up:) But I really enjoyed this post and your examples.

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    • Thank you so much, Judi. And for sure, memoirs are not simply for folks who climb mountains or cross the oceans in a catamaran. Memoir writers tend to be folks who want to share an interior journey. Fiction offers freedom, to stretch the boundaries of everyday life. So bringing the two together is rather perfect. 😀

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  10. A wonderful take on perspectives Gwen! I like the way you have illustrated your points. While a memoir may seem realistic, same events could be made more exciting if they are fictionalized. I’ve read some fabulous memoirs and I feel a little amount of fiction that may creep into it is harmless. All chapters are lifted from real life and molded by the writers – that is my belief.

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    • Thank you, Balroop, I share your belief. We all filter events differently and how we situate them within a larger story will be unique to each writer. Thank you again for your lovely insight. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

  11. In several of my novels there is something personal that I only realized recently. I have not consciously put it there, and it is slightly different in each appearance.
    I love the way you suggest how a real event may be fictionalised. The encounter with wolves instead of the real life encounter. Very clever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, V.M. A few years ago, I realized that when I read a novel, I actually look for those personal touches you refer to. Those glimpses into the writer’s heart or soul. Once discovered, I connect with the writer…and then the story becomes precious to me. Perhaps we all do this, I just was not aware of my inner process until that moment. Thank you again for commenting. 🙂

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  12. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Gwen Plano has an excellent post on Story Empire today, dealing with “Memoir or Fiction.” I know you’ll want to check this one out, and take a look at the well illustrated points Gwen makes. Please consider passing it along so others can enjoy it, too, thanks. And thanks to Gwen for an interesting and fun post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. An excellent post, Gwen, with great examples to illustrate your points. Though I have no interest at all in writing a memoir, I’ve been around a long time and have seen (and done) a lot of things. Because I write fiction set in the south, where I’ve lived most of my life, my books include many of my favorite places, like the North Carolina mountains and waterfalls, and the rivers and wetlands of central Florida. And sometimes little memories of real events pop up now and then, too. (Like scenes and happenings along the rivers I’ve canoed for many years, including a certain little turtle that plopped from a limb into a canoe with a sound like a gunshot. That really happened to me, and I was just as startled as my characters were.)

    Sometimes I insert “items” from my real life that amuse me, but that only a few people would recognize. For instance, I have a secondary Riverbend character driving an old, primer red & gray VW van that perfectly matches the one my husband owns. And my characters often like or dislike the same things that I do. I think all writers do that to some degree. As has been mentioned already, we bring bits and pieces of ourselves to our stories, even when the book is fiction. But that’s the blessing of having so many years’ worth of life experiences–they become fodder for our novels and poetry. Adapted memories, yes, but an actual memoir? I don’t think I want to do that, even though I’ve had some dramatic things happen in my life.

    Thanks for a fun post! Sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing so personally, Marcia. I think writers straddle genres at times. Imagine situating a story within 2020, my goodness, what a challenge that would be! You’re a lovely writer, so whether memoir or fiction, you come through beautifully.☺

      Liked by 1 person

      • I refuse to write anything in ANY current year, or in the near future. I always choose a year where I already know what major world events were going on, etc. Imagine writing a book last year with a timeline set in, or overlapping into, 2020 without mentioning COVID, for instance. It wouldn’t make sense. And I have NO desire to ever write one thing about this year. It would be way too depressing! 😦 And thank you for your kind words, Gwen. I really appreciate them. 🙂 ❤ )

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  14. Eyewitness testimony is inherently unreliable. You demonstrated that beautifully, Gwen. I’ve never felt the urge to write a memoir, but I do write true crime. As I read your post, I noticed a lot of similarities between the two. Regarding fiction, I think many of us pour our heart and soul into our characters. And yes! I always wonder how close to reality a character is to the author.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have not felt the tugging of the memoir. I’m not anything special as far as that goes. Some of us will always find a way into our fiction. We can’t remove ourselves from the writing process. That’s a good thing, because books written by an algorithm or something would not have the soul behind them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Craig. I love your comment about “soul” and envy your ability to transform even the ordinary into the extraordinary — through whatever medium.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. This is a very cool post, Gwen. I love how you illustrated the differences between fiction and memoir and how the same event may play out differently in each. There are small bits and pieces of me in my stories (likes, dislikes, etc.), but I’ve never included anything truly personal. I’ve always shied away from that. I love writing fiction. I love the rush of being able to mold and craft characters and events the way I see them and how I want sequences to play out. It’s like taking make-believe when I was a kid and putting it on the page.

    I have read several memoirs that friends have written, but I would never write one myself. For me, it’s fiction all the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Some real stories would have to be made into elements in a fictional story because they might not be believed. Sometimes, life does outdo fiction. There are many snippets from my life that I would like to incorporate into a work of fiction. Things I saw, things I did, even things I imagined. I don’t think a memoir would be interesting, but I hope one day to be able to weave some bits into a good story.

    Thanks for the examples, Gewn.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. In all of my writing there are sprinkles of my own memories and experiences, both good and bad. I think if we write from the heart, it’s hard not to allow those memories to slip in. I’ve never considered writing a memoir. My life is too boring! 🙂 Great post, Gwen! I really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Jill. I agree with you about writing from the heart…how could we not include parts of ourselves. Beautiful. ❤

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  19. I believe that we always leave bits and pieces of ourselves into our writing, whether fictional or not. Even if a certain character is totally made up, he/she/it will hold many elements of the essential us … and, yes, I say that even though I’ve written some nasty folks and things, lols. Thanks for a lovely post, Gwen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Harmony. Like you, I believe writers leave a trail, and readers can follow that trail if they wish. Most of us only know each other through our writing, but what a fabulous way to meet! ❤

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  20. Pieces of me are in my writing. The way I feel about certain things. Even some real life experiences weave their way in. I change them a bit so as not to be obvious to people who know me.

    I’ve never considered memoir but love the freedom of fiction. Good things to ponder here, Gwen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with Joan. Parts of me have woven themselves into my stories. It could be my thoughts/beliefs or some of my experiences. A memoir feels too invasive for me. Who knows! Maybe one day many years from now, I’ll crack myself open and share my life journey with the world. But first, I’ve got to work on adding to my adventure. 😉 Great post, Gwen. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Joan. I agree with you, there’s immense freedom in fiction. Some experiences almost seem better suited for fiction, because there’s no concern about believability.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Years back I listened to an author on NPR describe how painful it is for him to finish a book. He said, “I cry when I say goodbye to the characters.” What an image. Since then, I look for the writer when I read, pieces of him or her spread across the pages. I’m consistently moved by the person I discover. And you, Denise, are lovely to meet in your books. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  22. It’s so true Gwen how we perceive the same event can be so different. I’ve done both fictionalized and memorized my memories. Great post to think about perception.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Years back I listened to an author on NPR describe how painful it is for him to finish a book. He said, “I cry when I say goodbye to the characters.” What an image. Since then, I look for the writer when I read, pieces of him or her spread across the pages. I’m consistently moved by the person I discover. And I love how you both fictionalize and memorize your memories. ☺

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