Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fiction and Memoir: a few thoughts


Memoir combines the aesthetic challenge of fiction with the obligation to be as truthful as possible. It is true that memoir is understood to be a subjective recreation of events in the author's life — there is some latitude because it is only one person’s truth, not “the” truth. But that doesn’t mean you can flagrantly distort or exaggerate for effect. If the only way to get at the emotional truth you feel is to make things up, then you need to write fiction, not memoir. Otherwise you are betraying the reader, who trusts you.

How is making things up a betrayal of the reader? Because in fiction, the author and the narrator are understood to be different people, while in memoir they purport to be the same person, someone who is saying: “Pay attention. This really happened to me.” You’ve asked the reader to trust you, and this is a privilege not to be abused. To justify this trust, your focus needs to be on making your story worth the reader’s while, which means it must be reliable. Veracity is a necessary condition for any document that claims to be a memoir.

But although veracity is necessary, it is not sufficient. A memoir is not a private document like a journal; it is not therapy. The mere fact that something happened doesn’t make it worth reading about. You must find the heart of your story and work back and forth from that, choosing to represent only those events that illuminate that centre. We don’t need to know everything you know; we just need to know the really important things. If the art of fiction is knowing how much to put in, the art of memoir is knowing how much to leave out!

In other words, even memoir needs a plot! What is a plot? Not mere narrative sequence — this happened and then this and then that — but the interconnection and relationship of events through cause and effect. Ultimately, a good memoir must contain the same elements you find in good fiction: setting, description, dialogue, and character. You need to build scenes and provide lots of imagery; it’s not enough to talk about feelings. The more you make us see the more we will believe.

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