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]

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

  1. glenda larsen

    I enjoy your advice. It is helpful.

  2. Anise Leinen

    I don’t know if anybody is still reading this, but a central question about my memoir is driving me nuts. EVERY factual detail is true, and many can be proven by medical records and police reports. But can a memoir writer adjust the timing of events? And if so, how much? I do know that many nonfiction writers are clear about the fact that they’ve changed an enormous number of identifying details (including some details about exact timing, actually.) Torey Hayden is a good example, and she writes about this exact issue on her blog. It’s such a gray area… where do you draw the line? Again, there is absolutely nothing made up, no stretching of the truth, etc. But if you write your grandmother as dying earlier or later than she did, the timing of when you moved from a certain area, and so on?

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m confused by your question because the order of events IS a factual detail. Changing the order in which things happened can dramatically change the meaning of those events.

      A better way to approach this is to ask you: what is your intention? Why do you want to change this? Is it to make the story clearer to the reader? To make it easier to follow? Writers often omit certain facts or details on behalf of the reader as they make the story harder to follow without adding substantive value. Movies based on “true stories” often combine two real people into a single character primarily to simplify the story and make the underlying truth of the story stronger.

      But as anyone who has been written about, even in a newspaper article, can tell you the writer’s notion of what is substantive and the actual person being written about’s notion can be very different.

      The simplest thing to do is to just be honest with the reader about how you are handling the facts. You can state in the introduction to the book “all these facts are true, however some order of events were changed to simplify the telling of my story”.

      In many of the examples above this is where writer’s got themselves into trouble – they didn’t clarify for readers if their book was a more artistic and liberal interpretation of actual events, or a journalistic account of actual events and history. The biggest dangers are if the reader thinks they are reading one kind of book while in reality the writer created a different one.


Leave a Reply

* Required