Memoir Vs. Fiction


Memoir vs. FictionIn conjunction with the launch of A Fitting Place, I’ve been invited to contribute to the websites and blogs of other writers who share my fascination with the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone.  

For the next few weeks, my blog will showcase these “hosted” essays.

The post below was published on June 3rd by Amy Sue Nathan on her thought-provoking website “Women’s Fiction Writers.”  


Memoir Vs. Fiction: Training Wheels for A Novelist

I am often asked which is the “better” vehicle—a memoir or a novel—for a story that has some basis in fact. As the author of both a memoir and a novel, I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for the reader or the writer. What I do believe is that for a newbie writer, a memoir is a much better place to start.

Unlike fiction, the outer boundaries of a memoir are defined before the first word hits the page. As a memoirist, you “know” where the story begins and where it ends, who the players are and what they’re like. As a memoirist, the number of your plot points and scenes are constrained by reality. Your job is to connect the dots, not make them up.

But getting the dots down on paper does not a memoir make. Knowing where the story begins and ends is not the same as having a strong story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that propel the story forward. Knowing why your story matters is not the same as having a sympathetic protagonist that readers will care about, a protagonist with a clearly defined desire line that creates tension and keeps the reader turning the page. Knowing the players and their personalities is not the same as having complex and multi-dimensional characters whose strengths elicit our admiration and whose foibles gain our empathy.

In other words, a well-written memoir should read like fiction.

Learning the Writerly Craft

One advantage of starting your creative writing career as a memoirist is that, when you get it wrong in your first draft, you have fewer things to fix.

As a memoirist, you can’t change the trajectory of events, so you have to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within whatever storyline you have. You learn, by trial and error, which events move the story forward and how it feels when your story begins to unfold organically. You learn that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose can heighten the emotional truth of your story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, as the author of a memoir, you can’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All you can do is focus on re-writing those that are flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. Your focus is on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. You learn that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say. Above all, you have some sense of what you’re aiming for as you try to repair a crippled story.

Learning to be a good writer is never easy, but it feels more manageable when you’re tackling a memoir than the bad first draft of a novel. With an infinite number of possible events, scenes and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in selection of characters, or some combination of them all. For a neophyte, sorting it out is all but impossible.

By the time I began my novel, I had some solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Without the memoir, there never could have been a novel.

Finding Your Voice

Another advantage of starting with a memoir is that it is easier for a newly-minted author to find her “voice” in a memoir than in a novel.

As a voracious reader, I recognized “voice” when I saw it, but I certainly couldn’t define it. When I turned my hand to creative writing, I had no idea how to find my own voice. That was hardly a surprise, as I’d spent many years as a writer in a business context, where I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view.

Looking back, I’m convinced the dreariness of the first draft of my memoir was due in no small measure to the lack of a distinctive voice. But as I re-wrote and re-crafted and re-organized my story around situations I had lived through and people I knew well—as I got closer and closer to a story that read like fiction—my voice began to emerge.

Could that have happened if I’d started out with a novel, where all the elements—story arc, scenes, and characters—were potentially in flux? I doubt it.

Priming the Pump

Writerly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

As the memoir unfolded and my voice emerged, however, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing on the open ocean was a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The lesson of that voyage, a lesson that changed my life, was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel.

It will not be my last.


I have loved the contributions of guest bloggers who resonate with the “relationship” issues addressed in A Fitting Place.  If you would like to be a contributor to the discussion, please contact me here.

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