There are obvious differences between writing memoir and fiction, of course. Fiction writers manufacture a story—although that story can be more or less based in fact.
Fiction allows a writer a lot of control over what happens and how.
In fiction, you can create a character and shape her thoughts and feelings in whatever way suits the narrative you’re constructing.
It’s the job of a fiction writer to put her protagonist through hell and back again in order to make a point of her choosing.
Needless to say, you can’t do all that in memoir and still call it memoir. But the element of shaping a narrative, of constructing a story that will pull a reader in and keep them turning the pages, is very much the same in memoir as it is in fiction.
A narrative memoir is a story.
It’s not a chronicle of a life, or even a detailed description of an episode in a life.
It’s not a series of diary entries, or a collection of blog posts.
While all of those elements can be mined in crafting a narrative memoir, the requirements of story come first.
So what are those requirements?
- A point
This may seem obvious, but any story has to have a point. You must have a reason for telling your story, something you want a reader to understand at the end. For narrative memoir—as in fiction—that point has to touch on a universal if it’s going to appeal to readers who are strangers.
A narrative memoir shouldn’t be an exercise in blame or a catalogue of what you’ve done or what happened to you during a period of your life.
As Beth Kephart says in Handling the Truth, “I want to know that you’re writing for someone other than yourself: me.”
An example: Mother Daughter Me by Katie Hafner could have been simply a memoir about Hafner’s disastrous childhood and how her alcoholic mother failed her at a vulnerable time in her life. Instead, it’s focused on a finite period of time where she tried to achieve redemption for both herself and her mother in a somewhat disastrous experiment in living, but that led to a resolution and contained a message of hope: It is possible to mend traumatic family relationships with openness and love.
- Narrative drive
The story you tell in your narrative memoir has to grab readers from the first page and draw them through to the end.
Backstory must be seamlessly interwoven and your balance between scene and summary has to be perfect.
A masterful example of narrative drive that propels you through the story is Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. She layers her episodes in such a way that as a reader, you have to keep reading to find out:
a.) what happens during her own journey through therapy, and
b.) how she breaks through the rock-hard shell of a certain client, who is shielding a very traumatic event in his life. And she does it all with humor and sensitivity and seamlessly interweaving backstory.
- An arc
Story is about change. A fictional protagonist has to change by the end of the story. Likewise, your memoir is about change—a change you experienced. You won’t be the same person at the beginning as you are at the end. Obviously, you are the same person in basic ways, but you must demonstrate growth, development, and insight to your reader.
A reader should reach the end of your memoir and feel that difference, however obvious or subtle. And the change should be in the service of reinforcing your point.
One important difference between memoir and fiction.
In memoir, you make yourself vulnerable in a way that doesn’t happen in fiction. It’s scary and hard. It’s why some writers decide to fictionalize their painful stories rather than write them as memoirs.
But people who love and read memoirs are looking for that intimate glimpse into another life that somehow resonates with their own.
If you’re brave enough, are committed to crafting a real story with a point, narrative drive, and an arc, and are willing to face the inherent dangers of writing a memoir, it can be a much more powerful way to connect with readers than fiction.
So be brave! We’re here to help!