I thought it fitting today to talk about writing – fiction versus memoir – when to use each – at least in my experience.
A short story or novel can come from something in real life – yours or someone else’s. It could be a news story, a classified ad, a personal experience, a friend or relative’s experience, something you see or hear, etc. But that experience is only the idea that kick-starts the story. For fiction, you need to use your imagination to create your plot and your characters.
For memoir, you gotta tell the truth – at least as you see it. This means real people, real events, although you may not remember exactly what everyone said. I’ve learned that as long as you are sure A and B were in the same place at the same time, they probably spoke – unless you know or find out they were feuding and not speaking. You can also check with others (family, friends) who knew the people involved and the scene in question for input. And if the people involved are still living you can talk to them. This is where it can get interesting because everyone sees the same event differently.
When do you write memoir and when do you write fiction? There is no hard and fast rule but here’s what I do. As those following this blog remember, my original memoir version got hit by family flak – they didn’t mind fictionalizing some of the stories, but some of the narrative they didn’t want in (this was from reading one chapter and based on some of the questions I had asked them). So I revamped the memoir to focus on my story, deleted the “objectionable” stuff and…got busy with the fiction.
So far one short story I wrote got its idea from something that happened with my relatives. And in another story, one character is loosely based on a relative and another character in another story originated with someone I once worked with. But that’s it – the stories are fiction and so are the characters. The real life events and people only planted the proverbial seed and the fictional took over.
Some stories have to be told as I see them. They just don’t work as triggers for fictional stories. They are too important not to narrate as they happened. With me it was being bullied as a child – both by a so-called friend, who I call “The Bully” in my memoir, and the nun who became principal at the grade school I attended. The two are important to what I was, what I experienced as a child and how I turned out as an adult. For example, if I had not been bullied I may not be so gung-ho on justice and fairness – which includes presenting both sides of the story. Heck, it is possibly a big factor in my becoming a journalist. It also may have something to do with why I think people who commit crimes need to be punished (although I think my Catholic upbringing in the late 50s and 60s has a lot to do with that attitude). However, my basic honesty and integrity came from my mother.
And I’ve tried writing short stories about kids being bullied but the stories never go anywhere and some read downright silly.
Rule of thumb: Write nonfiction – memoir, nonfiction article, whatever – about what is important to you to bring out into the open as fact. I know there are issues of will so-and-so sue me or get angry or? You need to consider these to a certain point. Don’t let them get in the way of writing your true story if you believe it is necessary to do so.
Like me, if you’ve already received flak and decide not to write it as memoir or personal essay, then use it as the trigger for fiction, and let your imagination soar with plot and characters.
My take on this. And I’m sticking to it.
What do you think?
Sharon A. Crawford