How is Memoir Writing Different than Fiction Writing?

Here’s a break from all the baby talk. This is a guest post I wrote for Moody Publisher’s blog InsidePages just before Dominic was born – they asked me to reflect on the difference between writing memoir and fiction…

When I got engaged in 2008 I wasn’t writing a memoir, I was writing a novel about sex trafficking. But as my fiancée, Mike, and I began to plan our wedding I found it increasingly difficult to flip in and out of such vastly different worlds – the happiness of the one I was living in and the harshness of the one I was trying to write about. After months of trying to force myself to persevere with the trafficking novel, one day I stopped long enough to ask myself what I really wanted to be writing about.

The answer to that question wasn’t trafficking. It was the idea of home.

I’d spent my childhood in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. I carried Australian and Canadian passports. I was living in Los Angeles working for a non-profit organization that provided psychological support to humanitarian workers worldwide. I was hopelessly confused as to where home was. Perhaps, I thought, I could write my way towards clarity. How hard could it be to write a memoir exploring this theme?

Of course, the answer to that question turned out to be “much harder than I had imagined.” Luckily that wasn’t the only thing I learned during the whole process.

I had expected writing a memoir to feel completely different than writing a novel, and in some ways it did. When I was writing my first novel I found myself getting surprised by what was happening, but as I figured the “what” out then understanding my characters’ actions and reactions followed fairly naturally. Writing a memoir reversed this process. I already knew what happened – I’d lived it – but I had to work much harder to figure out what it all meant to me then and now.

The plotting process was different, too. With the novel I wrote my way into the story blind, without an outline, but during the drafting process the story gained increasing momentum as events unfolded. In contrast, I had a clear vision for the start and end of the memoir but little idea of how I was going to get from one place to the other. Despite repeated outlines I continued to flounder in the middle until the very final drafts of the manuscript.

What about ways that writing memoir was similar to writing fiction? Well, unfortunately, the first draft of the memoir turned out to be just as much in need of major revisions as the first draft of my novel had been. The first draft of the memoir was basically a therapeutic mind-dump. It was the product of a lot of thinking and soul searching and I had indeed gained a lot of clarity around the issue of home. What I hadn’t done, however, was tell a story in a way that might sustain interest for an entire book.

This second draft was the point where writing the memoir began to feel a bit more like writing fiction. First, I had to figure out what a story arc was. Then I had to take this therapeutic ramble of a manuscript and think about how to “nest” my reflections about home within a related story that could better structure the book and propel the action.

The second and third drafts were painful revisions. They involved completely restructuring the book around the long-distance love story of how I met Mike and cutting out scenes, even whole chapters, that didn’t move the story forward. In the end, however, it was worth it. I discovered that wasn’t just trying to figure out what home meant; I was trying to answer this broader question:

After a nomadic life that has been largely defined by coming and (always, inevitably) going, am I even capable of the sort of commitment demanded by marriage and children and a place called home?

I’d love to hear from you! For those of you who write fiction and/or memoir, how have you found them to be different and similar processes? For those of you who read both genres, what differences and similarities do you see between fiction and non-fiction stories?

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8 responses to “How is Memoir Writing Different than Fiction Writing?

  1. Nicely written blog! I think that in every Fiction is a little bit of memoir. Everyone has different experiences and when one writes, isn’t it hard to not forget them?

    • Thanks, Isabella. I also think there’s some memoir in every novel. I know there was in my first novel and I would think that people’s personal experiences absolutely inform their fiction writing – even if not in the factual details of the story in the emotional heft and depth of characters reactions.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve worked on both fiction and memoir pieces. But, I get frustrated with myself because I believed that memoir should be an easier process because I know the end of the story. It helps to know that it’s still hard work. I can give myself a break when I go back to it.

  3. Memoir and fiction: it’s all the same. Only in memoir you know a few more of the details. And sometimes you still change them.

    • Like. Yeah, it took me a while to figure out which details I felt OK about changing and which not. The name of some key characters, for example, yes. The date on some of the letters in the book, yes. Inventing conversations about topics that we never discussed… tempting, but no :). Congratulations times ten on finishing the first draft of your own book by the way.

  4. I look forward to reading your memoir — it sounds fascinating. I love reading fiction and memoir. What I especially love about memoir is how it tends to be a little more introspective and philosophical than fiction (there are exceptions, of course, and a lot of fiction is quite introspective/philosophical in more subtle ways).

    • I agree… I like the introspection layer in most memoir, and the more direct access we get to the narrator’s thought processes and how they tend to link the past with current learnings. Hope you’re well Heidi.

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