When it comes to personal legacy, it is said so often in so many ways it could easily become trite were it not so universally true: everyone has a story tell. Many of us want to leave our imprint and be remembered. We want to make a difference, however that is measured and within whatever sphere we can influence. Memoir is a common and often presumed vehicle for that to happen.
But less discussed is whether someone wishing to tell their story should use the non-fiction or fiction mode. Both are options and both have benefits, issues, and limitations.
Memoirs are written with different goals in mind. For example, they can leave remembrances for others to cherish, provide an effective and sometimes painful means to excavate and confront difficult parts of a personal past, contribute to the greater knowledge, and, sometimes, say something that needs saying.
Both the non-fiction memoir and novel can accomplish most of these goals through the art of storytelling. Both the fiction writer and memoirist can show and tell, travel to different periods of time as befits the narrative, forecast events to entice readers, build drama, present conflict, engage in provocative dialogue, and weave an overall story arc that leads to resolution or conclusion. In addition, both can present content and characters in a way that allows readers to see themselves in the storyline and have individual emotional reactions to antagonists and protagonists alike.
They also have differences.
The essential difference concerns truth. Memoir is—or should be—tethered to the truth, allowing the reader to experience content as real. Sure, some fiddling is okay, for example, in reconstructing past dialogue or altering the sequencing of events. But in the main, memoirists warrant to tell the core truth about their lives and how they genuinely interpret and experienced actual events.
In contrast, fiction harbors no allegiance to the truth as such, anointing creative writing with the hands of the wheel, except where the story seeks authenticity and credibility with underlying “facts” to ward off suspension of belief. Otherwise, the imagination of the writer determines the bounds of fiction.
The memoirist reveals themselves, warts and all, in a single personage. Fiction, in contrast, allows the author to reveal different parts of themselves or express points of view through multiple characters, functioning as a composite.
Memoir is personally affirming in a way that fiction cannot do or at least not in the same way. The same goes for ego and pride nourishment.
The narrator voice is often different. Memoir is commonly written in the first person and fiction often, but not always, in the third person. The first person in memoir is essential to bringing the reader within the inner journey of the author. What voice to choose for fiction is within the creative discretion of the writer.
Sometimes memoirs present risks that fiction can avoid or substantially mitigate. For example, public revelations might have personal impact on others, especially family. They might cause embarrassment, pain, or humiliation or, worse, potentially violate privacy or commit defamation.
These risks can be mitigated or controlled in memoir, by deletions, changing names, events, and places, or getting advance releases from those potentially impacted. But sometimes protective measures are not always options, for various reasons, and, even when they are, might not entirely do the trick. A “memoir” is, well, a memoir, and in terms of risk management, is limited in what it can do. Indeed, the more the author changes a memoir to manage these potential consequences, the more the memoir morphs into fiction—sans the benefits. Fiction can fix most of these problems and even provide the author the option of anonymity via a pen name.
This is not to say that all memoirs have these challenges. Most do not present risks in pursuit of telling a true personal story. But some do and must be assessed accordingly.
Some maintain that fiction is harder to write than memoir. That can be the case in certain situations. But when writing a memoir with depth and degrees of complexity, I don’t agree. Both memoir and fiction call upon the writer to deliver life nuances and shape stories in ways that grab readers and inspire them to happily hitch a ride along the narrative journey. For sure, memoir and fiction might not have identical difficulties. The memoir can challenge the author to mine painful parts of the past while fiction tests the writer’s imagination to deliver riveting scenes that advance the storyline. But both are tough work and command much from writers.
It may be counterintuitive for most aspiring memoirists to embrace fiction as their medium of choice. It is not “how it’s done.” But it is often worth pondering. The possibilities can be thrilling and the rewards fulfilling.