Fiction Vs. Memoir

While I don’t know how common this is among other memoir writers, I have recently begun to question whether what I am writing should be a memoir at all or if I should be writing it as a novel.


Perhaps I can be more honest if I write it as fiction. As fiction, I can elaborate certain ideas in a way I could never as memoir. In fiction, I can tell the truth without the facts getting in the way. I can also make up storylines that better illustrate the purpose of the book.

While fiction is not factual, it does tell the truth. Fiction can shed light in ways that nonfiction cannot. Instead of using factual events to reveal common experiences, made-up stories can make the experience more visible. It also brings distance for the writer to view circumstances from afar, thus able to be more objective. As a novel, I do not have to rely on memory; I can invent situations that might better illustrate the story’s theme or purpose. Fiction might be more freeing in that I don’t have to worry about hurting feelings or offending family members or other key personalities. While they may recognize themselves, it’s still fiction. A novel also frees me to write from multiple viewpoints, lending understanding to other perspectives.

In some ways, fiction can be more believable than fact. So much of real-life falls under the column of “you can’t make this shit up.” Many real events would have to be toned down in order for them to be used in a novel.


On the other hand, through memoir I can connect with and help others; that is a big reason for writing this particular story. Fear of abandonment is all too real and more common than we realize. If we are able to talk, read, write about it, we can overcome it. Nonfiction accentuates the commonplace repetition of abandonment across generations. If I can find and fit the pieces together of family history, the common thread will be clear and obvious. I hope.

Another purpose for writing this particular story, is so that I can explore the things that happened to me and my family and that is the very definition of memoir. Sticking with the facts as I experienced them will reveal the answers I am looking for. Untangling this web of experience, I hope, will prevent another generation from repeating the cycle.

Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir paraphrases Don DeLillo, “a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”  As I start with events, the meaning becomes clearer. Perhaps this act of questioning my story’s format is just one more manifestation of procrastination. Memoir writing consists of hills and valleys. Many answers to the memoirist’s questions are hard pills to swallow. For me, that’s where procrastination or diversion comes in. When it starts to hurt, I will find other squirrels to chase. At least for a while, because I am determined to face my past head on. Karr describes memoir writing as nothing less than “a major-league shit-eating contest. Anytime you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.”


I guess what I am trying to say here is that I have a memoir to write and I better stop chasing other squirrels and get to it, no matter how much it might hurt.

Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir: Harper Collins, 2015.

Lara, Adair. 10 Ways to Tell if Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel, Writers Digest: January 23, 2012.

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