Fact or Fiction?

fact-or-fictionAn ongoing debate rages in the memoir world about Truth. What are the limits? How much creative license is too much? Where do you draw the lines between memoir and fiction?

The case for fictionalizing memoir is growing increasingly prevalent and strong. Proponents claim that all memory is fiction to begin with, since memory is based on perception and perception has to be interpreted. No two people perceive things exactly the same way, ergo perception is fiction. Thus all memoir is fiction, so we might as well call it that to begin with and avoid controversy.

Other positive points the fiction camp claims include:

Freedom to disguise characters and place, thus shielding yourself from disgruntled acquaintance, relatives, and lawsuits.

Freedom to embellish details as you wish.

Freedom to distort circumstances to enhance a point.

Freedom to write in third person and include other people’s points of views.

Freedom from concerns about inaccurate or incomplete memory.

Some truth can be expressed more poignantly in fiction than sticking to real life circumstances would allow.

Your muse has more room to dance, play, and toss out delectable insights when unfettered by reality constraints.

These are all valid points and they have artistic merit. There are times when fiction is a powerful alternative. But if you look closely, you’ll notice nearly all those points are based on fear. When the fiction decision is made from fear, it may be a cop-out. This fear may stem from the possibility of censure or offense, from insecurity about writing skills, or from anticipated consequences for baring your soul.

A case can be made that these are all surmountable, and that the rewards of writing your truth in your voice as your true story are likely to be greater than the rewards of writing fiction. Some point out that writing fiction is no guarantee that people won’t attribute it all to your personal experience anyway, as Kathryn Harrison found out when she wrote The Kiss.

Harrison’s first published book was a novel, Thicker Than Water, about a consensually incestuous relationship between a man and his twenty-year-old daughter. Critics claimed it was really a memoir. In truth it was fiction, though based on her own true story. According to her account while keynoting a writer’s conference I attended a few years ago, after writing her third novel, she became blocked and had to write the incest story as a memoir, The Kiss, to get it out of her system. Critics read the memoir and claimed it was fiction. She read parallel passages at the conference, and the memoir was more sparsely written with fewer details.

So how do you know which form will work best for you? It’s always a personal decision and the author’s choice. If you want more information to guide you through this choice, be sure to sign up for the 2011 Fall Memoir Writing Telesummit sponsored by the National Association of Memoir Writers. Eight experts will join NAMW founder Linda Joy Myers to discuss various facets of topic Truth or LieOn the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction.

Click here to see the list of speakers, times, and topics, and sign up for this free event. Even if you can’t listen live, everyone who signs up will receive a link to listen to replays.

Write now: pull out a favorite memory and write the story as fiction to explore the difference it can make.


Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, excellent post, as always. However, I don't agree that most of the reasons you've listed to fictionalize memoir are based on fear. In fact, as I look at the list, only two seem to be fear based -- disguising characters for the purpose of shielding oneself and concerns about inaccurate or incomplete memory. The rest seem to be more about artistic freedom. And even the first one could be chosen more to protect real-life characters than to shield oneself from their offense.

That said, as a memoir writer myself, I often think that trying to write reality (my reality) is more difficult than letting my imagination roam. That sometimes it would feel like a relief if I could just make stuff up to make my point (or my life) more interesting.

Ultimately, I think it's an entirely personal decision that -- hopefully -- should be made as an artistic decision, rather than a logistical one.

Do you agree?

Linda Austin said...

I agree with Amber Lea that it's usually not fear that makes us want to do a fictionalized memoir, rather it's the freedom to part with your truth in order to tell a better story. While some may think all memoir is fiction, memoir should be the truth as we know it. Nobody can know the absolute truth, but we do know when we are making stuff up!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amber and Linda, I so appreciate your comments. Multi-faceted conversations are always more powerful than one person's opinion. I see your point that perhaps I exaggerated the fear angle, but that may be useful. In the end, I don't think it matters which form a person chooses -- both have the power to heal and transform. I'd urge people to dig deep and determine whether the artistic freedom they seek is truly that rather than a nervous hunch that there are no workarounds in memoir. I see the questioning as a tool for personal clarity, not judgment of form.

Herm said...

As a photographer, I understand that changing light changes mood and view. This post and these insights have cast a new light on the subject for me.

Though two people may view the same situation differently, each angle will be true. It might be interesting to have a circle of people write about, say a sculpture, placed in the middle and then read their descriptions.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Herm, your comment reminds me of the blind men and the elephant. Is it a trunk? A leg? A tail? Perhaps fiction can show more of the elephant at times. I have occasionally had people in a class write about the same thing. You are so right that sometimes you wonder if they were sitting in the same room.

kathleen said...

Sharon, this is a fascinating discussion about a very real dilemma for memoir writers-writing our truth and dealing with rebuttals. As I get knee-deep in my memories, I am constantly prodding myself on to go deeper into my story-layer after layer. I admit that sometimes I think fiction would be a lot easier to write than scenes and stories revealing real people. I do agree that writing our truth (to the best of our ability) has the potential to be far more healing and freeing, I see the Lifewriters' Forum is abuzz with this discussion and it all has prompted my post for next week on "Writing Raw" I plan to post the link on the forum.
Thanks for a great post.

Julia said...

Personally, I think that while sometimes it is important to deliver a story as you experienced it, fiction is way more fun to write that hard, chunky fact. There are so many places you can go with one memory, and yes, I agree that memoir itself is, in a way, fiction. Everyone experiences life differently, and it's so much more fun to tell your twist on it. :)