Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?

William Hamilton once did a cartoon showing an aspiring young woman writer asking a balding, mustachioed literary type: “Are you fiction or nonfiction?”

If you’re writing a memoir (a me-moir to the cynical)  you may wonder whether it would be better as a novel. What reasons might there be for making that decision?

Legal Reasons

Publishers are extremely wary about anything that might cause litigation. If you’re going to include unflattering things about living people, they may sue. You can disguise them, but if you’re living in a small town or people will know who you’re referring to anyway, that won’t help.

Personal Reasons

Fictionalizing your past may make it easier to write about. A memoir is constrained by the truth. Writing fiction liberates you to alter your experience as you wish.

Literary Reasons

What are your literary goals in writing the book? If you want to create a legacy for your friends and family, writing a memoir makes more sense. Nonfiction is easier to write because you’re drawing on your experiences and facts you can verify.

But writing fiction liberates you to create whatever combination of character, plot, and setting will have the most impact on readers. And a memoir should read like a novel. Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, which ignited the interest in memoirs, certainly does. You could call it a novel without changing a word. The dialogues he had as a child with his family capture the emotional truth if not the factual truth of what was said.

Like a novel, a memoir has to describe places, characters, and situations so readers will want to keep reading about them. The book needs a story arc that traces your transformation from who you are at the beginning of the book to the person you become after being changed by your experiences. Many novels, especially first novels, are autobiographical, and all novels make use of the author’s experience filtered by the imagination and the needs of the story.

Commercial Reasons

What are your financial goals for your memoir? Will it be more salable as a novel? Will it be more promotable? Will it have more film and foreign rights potential? Will have more potential for follow-up books?

My partner, Elizabeth Pomada, spent quite a while trying to sell Pam Chun’s biography of her great grandfather, The Money Dragon. Finally, we suggested Pam call it a novel, and the first publisher to see it published it complete with photos and trial transcripts. It became a prizewinning bestseller in Hawaii, where it’s set.

I hope these considerations help you answer the question of whether to fictionalize your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell, and I encourage you to tell yours. First get it down on paper in the most effective, enjoyable way you can, and get feedback from a fiction or memoir critique group as you write. Then, if you still can’t decide whether to fictionalize it, let your community of readers help you figure out how best to offer your story to the world. If your writing has enough humor, drama, insight, or inspiration, it will find its audience.

Take heart. The hardest part of many memoirs is surviving the research!

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Changing the World One Book at a Time / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)

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2 Responses to Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?

  1. Katie says:

    Great post. You should read Secrets of a Mysterious Older Woman by Constance Feather, I think you will really enjoy it.

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