But Is It a Memoir?

I have been reading a memoir that has been doing well here in Maine (it’s by an excellent Maine writer)–I can’t vouch for its reach in the rest of the country. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt so I can only presume it is receiving support elsewhere.

It’s an interesting book, very well-written in terms of style and organization, but my nagging doubt is that it is autobiographical fiction and not memoir. I will choose to leave the book nameless as my intent is not to be negative about it but only to use it to elucidate a point about memoir writing which I think is important to keep in mind as we write.

I have frequently spoken about using fiction techniques to make a memoir more interesting. Dialog, for instance, can be marvelous. The trick, as I have offered frequently, is to use only a few words in direct dialog (“I  won’t,” she said) and then put the rest in indirect dialog (She said that was because blah, blah, blah…”)

Frank McCourt in his Angela’s Ashes wrote voluminous dialog remembered word for word from when they were uttered in the hearing of a six-year-old fifty years earlier. Is there anyone who believed that the dialog was authentic, that Frank McCourt could actually remember it? Well, not me. The dialogue was clearly fiction. (Can you remember hundreds of words of dialog from when you were six? I can’t!) Subsequently, I had to ask myself what else was made up in this book.

If a primary role of a memoir is the mentor the reader (and I believe it is), then the authority of the writer to declare “this is my experience and this is how it came out” must be beyond doubt. Otherwise we don’t know if the experience is a mentoring one since we don’t believe the author had lived the experience. (The best mentoring may be “do what I do not what I say.”)

Clearly, Frank Mc Court was making parts his story up—the dialog, for sure, but how much else did he make up for the sake of his narrative’s drama? How valuable are his insights about a life well lived if we are doubtful that he has actually experienced the life he purports to have lived and has generated anecdotes to make an interesting story? (Another James Frey here with his version of A Million Little Pieces?)

Now don’t get me wrong: a book like Angela’s Ashes can be entertaining and even full of encouragement and inspiration but can it ever really serve as a guide, a path?

Now to get back to the memoir I am currently reading. Here’s a passage from in which the author’s sister is about to learn of the death of her father. My summaries are in italics and within brackets. Here goes:

“Anne gets the news at the high school [where she is a first year teacher]…Hello to her carrel-mates in the English/History office. Coffee in the black-and-orange … mug.  A commotion of students in the lobby down the hall, a faraway sound like a muffled applause. A copy of the Lewiston Daily Sun lies on a table littered with stained spoons and spend sugar packets. She glances at the headlines. [a series of headlines taken from the national media]…She shakes a stubborn fountain pen, going over notes for her first period-class, adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.”

OK. This is clearly a mix of verifiable information and guess work. That the black and orange school colors appear on a cup is  no great stretch of the imagination. The colors can easily be verified. That Anne actually had coffee that morning is probable but not certain. Possibly made up to enhance the you-are-there-quality. I can live with that easily, That there are “stained spoons and spent sugar packets” on the office table is probable but again is a fiction to create immediacy. Would Anne have remembered this? “She glances at the headlines.” Would even Anne remember this recalling the day of her father’s death? Clearly, this is internet research. Then “She shakes a stubborn fountain pen.” Yes, a vivid image, but memoir? Then “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” Why this sort of detail to compromise the authority of the memoir?

What else is being fabricated to enhance the story line, the drama, but proves to be injurious to the writer’s authority to  present her experience to us as the truth?

I am going to continue reading the book but I’m afraid that it has become a novel–well, a subgenre of the novel really—it feels like an autobiographical fiction. I know there is much here that is the truth but I’m not so sure where it is to be found. The paragraph above is easy to pick apart but what about the other parts? So…

I’m going to continue to enjoy the book knowing that the feel of the book is true but uncertain about the particulars, the how-we-really-survived-our-father’s-death part. How much of the specific fail to correspond to the actual we cannot know. Mourning after all is often a matter of getting through the specifics: “I can do this morning–this next hour.”

What are your thoughts? Are you writing a memoir or an autobiographical fiction? Do you feel it makes a difference? Not what you call your writing BUT what you do with it. Are you reading a memoir that feels like autobiographical fiction. Tell us about it.


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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6 Responses to But Is It a Memoir?

  1. Dennis Sparks says:

    An interesting discussion about when and how to make up dialog in a memoir.


    Dennis Sparks 1124 W. Liberty St. Ann Arbor, MI 48103 734-998-0574/office Blog: dennissparks.wordpress.com Twitter: @dennissparks

    • Denis Ledoux says:

      Dialog is so important in a memoir because it allows us to “hear” the subject, but it is fraught with problems. Essentially, i believe, most writers use dialog that is too long. Yeah, keep direct dialog short and glory in the indirect dialog! And…

      Never use dialog to impart information. (“My dear, sweet cousin Cornelia, the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk” [No, I don’t read romance novels.]) Use dialog to convey feeling. Information belongs in the narrative of the memoir.

      “‘My dear, sweet cousin Crmelia,’ I said pointing to….. Cornelia had married…”

  2. Denis, I think you may have chosen the wrong paragraph here to illustrate your claim that this is not really memoir. Those very small details do not take away anything from the truth of what the author is writing – at least in my opinion. They simply illustrate the way she would normally do those simple things. In fact they enhance our knowledge of the writer – again in my opinion.
    I agree with what you say about Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’ – it is fictionalised memoir. That is because it is obvious that the detail is just too, well, detailed!
    But in the short extract you give us from this unnamed memoir, there appears to be nothing out of tune with a memory of an event. What would take away the reality is anything that must obviously be false, an over-assertiveness in ‘this is what happened and you must believe it’ approach.
    I believe that, if a writer acknowledges at some point that what is written is accurate as far as she know and as far as she remembers, then the small details that you point out would have no bearing on my willingness to see the whole as her story. It would be other things that could make me doubt her claims.
    Thanks for the opportunity to reply. 🙂

    • Denis Ledoux says:

      Liberties with facts ultimately, I believe, undermine the authority of a memoirist to present his/her life experience as a lived (vs. ficitonalized) version of the mythic journey. The lived hero’s tale must figure at the center of every memoir if the story is to rise above a chronology, a dirge or an encomium. In the nameless book, too many paragraphs like the one I cited in the blog entry erode confidence in the memoirist’s fidelity to what happened (the livedd experience) and create a sense of fictionalization–of choices to nurture the drama of the story (by making things up) over decisions to explore only what happened in view of arriving at an understanding/appreciation of the lived experience.

      If one accepts that fiction begins with feeling/insight (what we might call “theme”–“life is hard”) and ends up with plot line, characters and setting which will hold the writer’s insight for the reader, then one can grasp that fiction is based a priori on the author’s “take.” In a very real and different way, memoir begins with plot, characters and setting and proceeds to theme (“wow, that life as it was lived was hard”).

      The erosion of confidence in the writer’s assertion that she is writing memoir is generated by dozens and dozens of images such as “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” The detail is too particular be included as a memory of what had been an ordinary day (It ceased to be ordinary only later.). Had the author written, “Anne remembers being in love with another teacher and she so would always adjust her hem before leaving the privacy of her classroom” then the memory is plausible because the tiny “hem” detail is connected to a big “love” emotion. Of course, she would remember that. Had the author written “After hearing our father had died, Anne desperately adjusted the hem of her skirt. She remembers wanting the day to return to an ordinary day” the memory is again plausible because the tiny “hem” detail is connected to a big “death” emotion. Without these big connections, the “hem” detail, for me, erodes the authority of the memorist.

      I believe this is an appropriate paragraph to cite as the erosion of authority is not due to one writing faux pas but to a multitude of fiction-based images, dialogues, settings, etc. that ne has a nagging feeling could have been chosen for drama rather than authenticity. Eventually, little by little, one senses that one is reading an autobiographical fiction.

      I welcome your participation in this blog, Linda. You and others like you make it come alive. We each have a threshold of what we are willing to accept.Thank you for sharing your comments.

      • Thanks Denis. I was pleased to read your elucidation of the problem. Obviously, when the author is continually using techniques for the creation of an impact on that event rather than for presenting the truth – even if it is ‘her truth’, it makes it less likely to get the reader to accept the total reality of what is written. I agree with you in that way. Extended dialogue is, as you say, quite unbelievable, unless it is an obvious transcription of a recorded conversation. I can’t remember what I said yesterday, let alone sixry years ago!
        But I do believe also that there are certain fiction-writing techniques that can enhance a memoir – when used appropriately and with discretion, and when they do not take away the ‘realness’ of the story.

  3. Sue Mitchell says:

    I found this post fascinating. So often, memoir writers are told to make their memoir read like a novel, but there is a very real pitfall associated with this–turning it into fiction. The distinctions you explained in your comment to Linda help elucidate what types of details are overstepping and how to reassure your reader about the unlikely details you do remember. Very helpful and thought-provoking.

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