Turning Your Experiences Into Memoir And Fiction
by Writing Workshops Org Admin
A year ago
Recently, a student in my Introduction to Fiction class presented a manuscript about a family dealing with a father’s infidelity and eventual death, followed by a power struggle over his remains. After our discussion, the student revealed that everything in the story had happened in her life, and she was the daughter.
While potentially interesting, the reader’s knowledge of a story’s source is not ultimately relevant to its success as an engaging and moving piece of fiction. Nor will a wholesale importation of real-life events form the basis of a successful story. Even with the same source of material, fiction and memoir or personal essays are not interchangeable. Fiction is not a transcription of life, nor is it a fig leaf—that label you impose on a true story to (thinly) conceal its origins, lest you offend your mother.
Each genre has its own mission, its own domain of authority, power, license, and limitations. Memoir, or creative nonfiction, strives to discover the meaning of one’s lived experiences. Think of memoir as a kind of detective story. A writer seeks to uncover the connections in their life’s disjunctive events, to find the patterns of behavior of life’s central characters. Memoir hunts for coherence in a life.
Fiction, on the other hand, does not aim for coherence. According to Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, fiction’s basic purpose is to quell boredom, to liberate an emotional experience from submersion or dormancy. So how do we know if we should be writing fiction or memoir?
Let me give you an example from my life. I grew up in Hyde Park, Chicago’s south side neighborhood. Hyde Park became Chicago’s sole racially integrated neighborhood in 1948. A decade later, in response to overcrowding and gang turf wars, it became the first community in the country to undergo Urban Renewal. My mother eventually moved us to the northern suburbs, which landed us in a big house we couldn’t afford. I was in high school, trying to fit into a world of unfathomable wealth and privilege, of distant neighbors and conservative politics. The move basically lobotomized our family identity, and we never recovered.
Two decades later, it dawned on me, write about this. The distance of time allowed me to synthesize what then felt like a pile-on of violent, disparate events (our car getting stolen from our driveway, a physical attack on me, divorce, my father’s psychic breakdown, etc.). My essay, “White Flight,” evolved into a cautionary tale as I built the argument that when you abandon the core values of the world that formed you, the flight you boarded out of that world will crash. This was a topic for memoir.
But what about those we left behind? What were their life narratives? Although we might not know them, they shape our world as much as everyone we do know.
For me, I thought about the older black man who cared for the grounds of private parkway where we lived. As kids, my friends and I tortured this poor man, jumping into the piles of lives he gathered, taunting him. But I never forgot him; he haunted me. So, I eventually wrote a story called “Police Work,” where he was the central character. Unlike writing about my direct experiences, this was a topic for fiction.
With the freedoms that fiction provides, I was able to liberate him from the two-dimensional caricature we had made of him. I discovered as I kept looking at him that he embodied the role of caretaker in a way I could never have understood as our gang dodged the rakes he carried. Through fiction, I gained knowledge beyond the self—knowledge of things beyond their surfaces. And I gained the authority to transform ineffable abstractions into a concrete world of color.
Of course, look to your own life to inspire your writing, but be clear on your intention if you do. If your aim is to seek a greater understanding and ownership of the world you inherited (what you were born into), then your domain is memoir and personal essay. If you want to discover and express the hidden energies and motivations of who and what animates your world, then you’re in fiction’s territory.