Memoir or Fiction?

The other day I attended a workshop facilitated by Maurice Mireau (author of Detachment: An Adoption Memoir).  The topic?  Memoir writing.  It was a worthwhile event.

The difference between fiction and nonfiction is something I’ve often thought about. My first two books have been inspired by true events and yet I was determined to create fiction out of them. Why? I felt that it gave me more freedom to explore my characters.  I had the plot—the historical events—that was straightforward. But I wanted to play with the characters and for that I needed the form of the novel.

Now as I work on my third, which is my most imaginative book yet, I question my imagination and my purpose. I am inventing the plot set against the bigger political scene and have done much research to build a base for the drama of the story.  It’s been an intensely interesting journey.

And yet, for me, as the writer, I seek a different truth than that found in the history books or even in the oral histories of people I interview. I’m seeking the truth about my mother. I’m seeking her reaction to life events. This is my focus. What made my mother tick? Why is this so important to me? Because it helps me to understand the truth about our relationship and insight into myself. (Narcissism? Or maybe just an insatiable curiousity?)

As I continue to explore this relationship, and of necessity that tumultuous history my mother lived through, I find the line between memoir and fiction blurring.  Am I writing fiction or memoir? How do I decide?

Truth, Lie, Street Sign, ContrastIt’s with relief that I’ve discovered that the line between fiction and memoir has become more smudged in recent years. David Shields  (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto) borrows from everyone as he discusses the blurred distinction between fiction and nonfiction. He quotes, among others, Picasso: “Art is not truth, art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.” (82) 

What is memoir?  In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir,  William Zinsser writes that memoir is an attempt at ” inventing the truth”  and not necessarily fact-based.  The novel is an illusion of reality—an invention—with a heavy focus on external plot.  Memoir, on the other hand, focuses more on internal plot. Memoir attempts to discover personal truth, while fiction attempts to entertain through escapism, through invention of reality. Neither excludes the other.

This mumble-jumble of story...mixing up reality and fiction under the guise of truth is what defines creativity.  As artists we borrow, we steal, we re-invent. I’m feeling a tad more confident in my own writing now because my stories are a confusion of fact and fiction—still seeking truth, between the lines. And like Rudyard Kipling says, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  

Looks like there's more than one way to tell the truth!


Larry Verstraete said...

I've wondered about the non-fiction & memoir distinction, too. Thanks for laying it all out so clearly.

Gabriele Goldstone said...

Not sure it's all that clear, but thanks!

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