Memoir or Fiction?

JR-cover-photo1I guess it’s an age thing. Looking back, remembering incidents from the past, key moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, reviewing your life. I write fiction and have always been adamant that I would never write a memoir. But maybe there comes a time in every writer’s life when the idea of a personal account seems a tempting project. You want to put the record straight, separate reality from fiction, write the definitive version of your life.

Stop. Think carefully before embarking on any kind of undisguised autobiographical project. It may be therapeutic for you to write it, but most authors write to communicate. However interesting your life, however dynamic your ideas, who would want to read your memoir? I suggest that if you are not famous enough for the name on the cover to attract unknown readers, it is doubtful you will sell many copies. As with any genre it’s important to think of your possible readership.

You might aim your memoir towards a smaller close-knit circulation, a memento solely for family, colleagues and friends. Think about it. Would such people be interested in reading your version of your life? I say “version” because any memoir is told from one perspective only, that of the writer. Others may remember the same events differently and have different responses.

That’s all right you say. They are welcome to their opinion. But consider this. If you do decide to write a memoir I’m sure that, like me, you would want it to be an honest one. Any writing involves selection. You could choose to withhold incidents too personal for public consumption, or details likely to hurt others. Or again, you may want to hold back certain information for fear of being sued for defamation of character. If you feel obliged to censor your work by omitting certain events, either to protect the feelings of others or to hide your own emotional responses, the result would not only turn out to lack honesty but is also likely to be excruciatingly dull. After all, don’t we all read biographies and autobiographies in the hope that they will reveal personal details about the lives being explored – information that we didn’t know, or only suspected, before?

If I were to write a memoir it would have to be a candid one and perhaps that’s why I’ve shied away from it. It would take courage. Are you brave enough to do it and not flinch from the consequences? Do you really want to disclose certain incidents or thoughts that might show you or others in an unfavourable light? If you are not confident enough to be faithful to your memories and reveal what you believe actually took place and how you felt about it as truthfully as possible, I suggest the memoir would probably not be worth writing.

Sit for a moment. Close your eyes. What should you include in your memoir. Here are some of the memories that jostle for permission to be included in my life story. My first day at school when I lay on the floor screaming, arms and legs awry, refusing to be pacified – the precursor, I’m ashamed to say – of more fits of temper to come. My mother’s remark at my degree ceremony that there were so many of us lining up to collect our scroll of waxed paper that degrees must be two a penny. I found that comment devastating because I’d so longed for her to be proud of me as the first person in our family to go to university. The mixture of pain and relief I experienced the day I overheard a conversation between my aunts and understood that I was adopted. The pain was real enough because I could tell that they considered me an outsider and that hurt. The relief came later when I realised that was why I’d always felt a misfit in this family. The fact that there was a reason for my feeling of isolation made me feel better.

I’m sure you have similar emotional moments that you will never forget. Love affairs – wonderful or disastrous – the break up of relationships, betrayal and loss – all would have to be chronicled. Flaws in your character too. In my case, there was that wicked temper that took me years to learn to control and a tendency to be over-critical of others. I imagine that my belief that literature and writing poetry was more important than anything else could be considered another fault.

You would have to recall amusing incidents too, or those that appeared amusing after the event. I remember my first wedding when my first husband spent half an hour on hands and knees in his Y-fronts, picking up every scrap of confetti that had fallen out of our clothes – a sure passion-killer. An omen of trouble ahead?

As I write this list, I realise that, as a fiction writer, I already make use of such incidents and emotions in my work. The confetti incident found its way into a bittersweet poem. The death of my daughter, Vikki, at eight months old from an unknown disease, is always with me and my feeling of loss surely informed the events in my novel, After, although the loss suffered by the fictional parents took place in very different circumstances. The fact that I’m adopted and also have an adopted daughter, has led to several pieces of writing on the subject but the story is presented in a different context.

Yes, I do draw on my own experiences to write. What fiction writer doesn’t? Consciously or unconsciously, we all explore the baggage of our past, to inform our work. Readers can speculate on which aspects of our work have come from the writer’s own experience, but they have been woven into a story about invented characters. Incidents in real life are considered, changed, viewed differently, divorced from the actual, but hopefully retain a sense of truth.

Fiction gives you the chance to write from different perspectives. You’re not bound to one viewpoint as in a memoir. The content, the structure and the style of fiction offer more freedom of expression than a seemingly candid assessment of your life in a memoir. You can think ‘What if this or that happens?’ and the imagination soars.

I doubt if I will ever write a memoir. But I will continue to use the rich resource provided by my memories and use my imagination to transform them into fiction.

You may be braver than me. You may embark on that journey back to the past and decide to expose the secret crevices of your life in a memoir. If you do, I wish you luck. If you decide not to, don’t forget the wealth of material contained in your memories. Steal from them and use them to give your fiction authenticity.