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Memoirs: Fiction or for real?

5 February, 2011

Some readers get upset when a memoir is exposed as being more fiction than fact. It may help to remember that no memoir is wholly true but rather sits somewhere on the fact-to-fiction continuum. As such, memoirs belong in the literary category of creative nonfiction. Theodore A. Rees Cheney, writing educator and author of Creative Nonfiction, describes the term creative nonfiction as literary work  based on facts but relying on fictional techniques.  To move readers ‘toward a deeper understanding’,  memoirists  both inform and dramatise, drawing on the skills used by the expert reporter and the expert storyteller. Some of the most interesting memoirs I have read work because the author creates a framework of facts and within this weaves the magic of the personal—views, conjectures, and memories.

But combining fact, fiction and interpretation can be a tricky business, as memoirist Tracy Seeley points out in her guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, No Rules.

The no-fear path

Seeley describes a memoir as a shaped, meaningful path. Creating such a path or theme about one’s life  means deciding what to include or omit.  In doing this,  the memoirist has to deal with two inner voices. The voice of artistic instinct encourages the writer to include everything important, but the voice of fear warns against including material that may hurt or anger others. What to do?  Seeley says that she was writing her memoir, she found it best to break free from the fear voice and stick to telling the story. She also points out that it is possible to tell the truth in one’s memoir without making its focus that of humiliating or punishing the people included in it.

Negotiating content

Seeley suggests memoirists send their finished manuscript to the people who figure prominently in their life-story. In this way, writers will discover if anything is inaccurate or upsetting. They then have the chance to respond before publication, telling anyone who is upset why they included certain material or wrote their life-story in a certain way. Memoirists are of course under no obligation to make changes.


CYA stands for Cover Your Ass. (It was a useful term and procedure I learned when working for a large and chaotic organisation.)

I am seeing more CYA prefaces in memoirs, where authors explain their creative choices in establishing the path or theme for their life-story. Here are some examples:

  • The story of my life relies both on documented facts and my memories. I acknowledge that the people I write about may have different perceptions about the events and their meaning.
  • In shaping  my story, I have collapsed some events, changed the chronology, and created composite characters. I have chosen not to include minor or repetitive elements of my life.
    For a model, see the revised preface in the memoir by James Frey, who was ‘outed’ for writing a memoir far to the fictional end of the continuum. He explained his actions as resulting from wanting his material ‘to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.’
  • The conversations I have included are obviously not verbatim. I have reconstructed discussions according to what I remember about the topic, tenor and views exchanged.
  • To protect the privacy of some people who figure in my story, I have given them different names and occupations.

Lawsuits concerning memoirs often come about because individuals mentioned in them believe they have been defamed or their privacy compromised. American writers interested in such issues may find it helpful to read Seeley’s explanation of legal matters relevant to memoir. Memoirists anywhere should consider having a legal beagle check their manuscript.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. writernubbin permalink
    6 February, 2011 1:18 am

    All the same, shouldn’t work called a memoir, in fact, be truthful? If it isn’t, and creative fiction techniques are employed in the writing of it, shouldn’t it be called a work of fiction based on real events? For me, it is no subtle difference. I would get irked when reading a so-called memoir, only to find out it has been embellished.

    Nor would I want to write one because I would feel inclined to do character assassination of ‘the ones who did me wrong’ . LOL

    Nice post, and thought provoking.


    • 6 February, 2011 9:50 am

      I was recently at a literary discussion where one person said nearly everything is creative nonfiction and readers should not feel irked or cheated if they enjoy a memoir then discover it is mainly fiction. However, the major issue for me is what readers of a memoir expect or assume. A memoir can never be a totally factual account but as a reader I expect it to be generally true in terms of how the writer remembers and perceives life events. And I feel cheated when it turns out that a memoirist has deliberately and radically changed or fabricated important events, especially if they have done so to get better sales by badging their work as a real-life story instead of a novel. No, I too would not write a character assassination memoir, but interestingly, these are the ones that make the big money!



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