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 Lie — On 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.