Do you prefer fiction or memoir?

IMG_7375My musing was triggered by Pamela Haag’s article, Death by Treacle, chosen by David Brooks for one of his 2012 Sidney Awards

Haag notes that more and more of daily life is absorbed by “attention-getting” devices—colored ribbons worn by family of cancer or diabetes sufferers, or makeshift shrines for victims of accidents or violence. Her objection is not to personal sentiment in public places, but to public sentimentality that panders to the sympathy of strangers. “The former,” she argues, “emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will change something. The latter emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will feel something.” [italics hers]

Memoir all too often satisfies Haag’s notion of an attention-getting device, a tale of personal misfortune that has no larger societal significance.  Thinking about the many personal details I aired in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I wondered if I too had been guilty of “pandering.”

But I think not. The theme of my memoir was much the same as the theme for my upcoming novel (A Fitting Place): the potential for growth as you learn to cope with situations far outside of your normal comfort zone. It is a universal theme, an opportunity as well as a challenge for most of us, most of the time. Moonbeam was not about “misfortunes” but about the vehicles of learning and growth.

So … why a novel instead of another memoir?  Several things come to mind.

  • A challenge of the memoir was drawing my husband and myself as three-dimensional people.  I found the process of “creating” characters to be exhilarating and I didn’t want to stop just because I didn’t have another personal story to tell.
  • I wanted a change of metaphor. In the memoir, travel was the metaphor: your route is poorly marked and often depends on the weather; all too often you end up someplace very different from where you set out to go.  In my novel, my protagonist never strays far from her geographical roots, but enters into a “rebound relationship” that takes her into unfamiliar social, intellectual, and emotional territory.
  • The dramatic challenge. With a memoir, you start out knowing the plot.  For a novel, you make it up as you go along, with no idea if the story arc really holds together.  But a good memoir has to read like fiction or the reader will lose interest, and it can be difficult to decide which life events are relevant to the story.  In a fictional format, however, you are free to create the events that will drive the story forward.  In both genres, there’s to-ing and fro-ing as you decide what’s backstory and what’s critical to the reader’s understanding. But it seems easier to jettison something that isn’t working in a novel than in a memoir where the event or the scene cannot be separated from the writer’s emotional baggage.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Which you prefer to write? Which you prefer to read?


  1. Ever since reading Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” I’ve preferred to read narrative non-fiction, whether in memoir form or otherwise. I like the true story aspect and knowing that the story I’m reading actually happened. It’s the same for my writing–I like writing a story that’s already taken place so that I don’t have to figure out the plot–“all I have to do” is tell it in a way that does it justice.

    • Nancy … thanks. It’s that business of “doing it justice” that the tricky part. As I mentioned on FB, I read mostly biography and memoir until I was 40, to see how others dealt with challenges. Now, I love good fiction. On the writing side, I could never have attempted a novel until I had learned the writing craft in the memoir.

  2. I have always preferred true stories to fiction and never considered them to be “pandering” if the story had a point. It seems simplistic to say that memoirs are merely “attention getting” devices. Identifying with a true life character can be cathartic and also inspiring. Although I wrote a memoir, I felt that the story had significance particularly for women who have had difficult relationships and those who have raised a child with a disability. Perhaps a writer of memoir is more of a journalist than a writer of fiction, but I do intend to try my hand at fiction in the near future.

    • June … I always wanted to tell the story that prompted my memoir — the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone. To be good, both memoir and fiction have to have a message or a theme that resonates with a larger audience … and be written well.

      I’ve turned from memoir to fiction, and am loving it … but it is a different kind of writing. Good luck on trying your hand at it.

  3. I’ve written six fiction books for the love of it. Fiction is fulfilling, creative, rewarding, and fun. I’ve written two memoirs and hope to God that I never write another. I wrote a book proposal and chapter-by-chapter outline for my motivational memoir, to be published in April. It has a clear message and I kept it humorous and uplifting as too many memoirs are written for the writer rather than the reader. I made up my first novel as I went along and it ended up in a crazy hodge-podge with characters directing the action. I’ve had such a great time working it all out that I’m still working on it after twenty years. Maybe it will see the light of day some day.

    • Penelope … I think your comment about too many memoirs being for the writer rather than the reader is what prompted my blog. People have often asked me if writing “Sailing Down the Moonbeam” was a cathartic exercise. It wasn’t … but largely because I waited long enough to see the experience in a larger perspective … that we learn as much (and maybe a lot more) from difficult experiences as from the good ones.

  4. Mary and Pennie,

    I really agree with your comment about too many memoirs being for the writer than the reader. I remember looking for an agent and a traditional publisher and being told that what made my memoir unique, was the fact that we uprooted our family to live in a hut in Belize; not that I had a defiant teenager. Unfortunately, when we’re caught up in our own life problems, we often think that we’re the only ones going through this experience. We need to step back and ask ourselves, “How can I tell my story in a unique, commercial way that hasn’t been written already?” That’s the tough part of writing a memoir. I am warming up to the idea of writing a novel. Mary you made it sound appealing when you said that you can let the characters lead the way.

    • Sonia … It’s always fascinating to me to see how other people deal with challenges, whether they are common things like a defiant teenager, a bad marriage, a unsatisfying job or a sick parent … or less common things like your move to Belize or my journey on a sailboat or Jennifer Wilson’s journey to Croatia to explore her heritage. But the best is being able to tell the story in a way that offers the reader a new experience even as they recognize a familiar emotional or intellectual or spiritual theme (that “shiver of recognition”)