Should your book be a memoir or fiction?

Here’s a common question about writing memoirs from the mailbag:

I just read a novel I loved and was inspired to start writing a book. And I actually did start.

The problem is the idea I have is very personal, about myself and my family.  I think it is very interesting but I wonder what the best way to write about it is?  Do I change the names and details to protect those closest to me, who when they read it will no doubt know it’s about them and freak out?  Or do I publish under an anonymous name and not tell anyone about it until much later?

– Name withheld by request

It’s up to you as a writer to decide how you want to tell your story and what responsibility you want to take for it. Labeling a work fiction gives a writer the most latitude and the least risk. Labeling it as non-fiction gives a book more authority and has more appeal for some readers, but comes with higher expectations for how responsibly you tell the story. For my book The Ghost of My Father, I chose to stay with non-fiction (See How To Write A Memoir Q&A). I tell my story as I’d tell it to someone I met in person.

The best advice is to write a draft without worrying too much about these issues. Writing a draft is hard enough, and there are few risks if you keep what you write private and secure. You only need to worry about these decisions months from now when you have a complete draft that you think you might want to work towards publishing. At that point you can easily change names, drop or add details, or shape the book to fit whatever constraints you decide are appropriate, including calling the book a work of fiction. Many famous novels were heavily inspired by real life events experienced by their authors.

Here are some common considerations for books projects like yours:

  • Respect for people: Just because you want to tell the story doesn’t mean your family wants it told. Any relationship is based on trust and to write about personal matters, especially painful ones, and share them with the world is likely be hurtful to everyone involved (It’s easy to find ugly celebrity examples of memoir strife). This has nothing to do with the law, but how much respect you have for the feelings of people in your family. Consider this: you requested to be anonymous, which I honored. Would you offer the same to the people you’re writing about? Would that even be possible if you called it a memoir?
  • The risks of claiming facts: Journalists use real names and claimed facts, but even they struggle with the line between storytelling and complete factual accuracy. Many memoirists do the same. The primary legal risk is what’s called libel or defamation, which means people claiming you have lied or misrepresented the truth. I’m not a lawyer and if you want to completely understand the risks, talk to one.
  • Writing about the past forces you take a side. In How memiorist’s mold the truth writer Acimen offers “Writing about the past is never neutral… What we want is a narrative, not a log; a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction. It’s their revenge against facts that won’t go away.” The desire to tell a good story can lead writers astray, embellishing or even betraying the truth to make for a better story. Creative non-fiction is the term for books that walk the line between journalism and creative storytelling.
  • The notion of truth is complicated in memoir, as it is in all writing, as we all have our own perspective and recollection of events. In telling a story it’s impossible to avoid amplifying some facts and diminishing others, including the skipping of details others might think important. Books that center on relationships can’t help but presume what other people’s thoughts or intentions were, which can’t possibly be objective. Memoirist’s like David Sedaris are known to take large liberties with the truth for comic and dramatic effect, which upsets some readers when they learn the hard truth.
  • Some memoirists do take wide responsibility. David Carr shared drafts and interviewed family members for his Memoir Night of The Gun. This is unusual, but does show what’s possible for writers who respect the people involved, and for the value of pursuing an objective truth.
  • jamesfrey_adpThere have been high profile takedowns of memoirists who “lied.” There have been many famous memoirs that were criticized for betraying even liberal notions of truth, including Oprah’s televised confrontation with James Frey. Their publishers were often held accountable too. Some of these were clearly betrayals of the notion of facts, but others force larger questions about what a story is and what obligations writers have to serve strict factual accuracy vs. attempting to capture the visceral experience of a memory.

Writing a draft is hard enough without worrying about these issues. As long as what you write is merely a private draft you can postpone these concerns. They only become relevant once you decide to share your work with others or publish your work to the world.

[Post updated 10-14-14]

2 Responses to “Should your book be a memoir or fiction?”

  1. glenda larsen

    I enjoy your advice. It is helpful.


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