How to Tell Your Story (& Maintain Your Relationships): Memoir, Novel, or Autofiction

stack of memoirs
Memoir is a valuable literary container for a writer to arrive at clarity, closure, and insight  and serves as social, cultural, and individual connective tissue for the reading community. If you’re concerned that those in your life won’t enjoy being memorialized in such a way, fictionalizing your story by writing it as a novel or autofiction still enables you to tell the truth but under the auspices of imagination.


by Jenna Kalinsky.

For some writers, a memoir is the only way to share their story properly and with integrity. As part of the rigours of the form, the memoirist shares their personal details as accurately as possible by crafting them into a meaningful narrative. The clarity, insight, and catharsis the memoirist derives from going through their experiences then become the reader’s, who feels an intimate unfiltered connection to the writer as a person and a deep sense of satisfaction from having gone on such a literary journey.

Yet while telling the truth, nothing but the truth, so help you Oprah (remember the James Frey debacle?) when it comes to sharing your own details is one thing, it’s entirely another to hazard the details of the people in your life who will be actors in your story. 

Due diligence and care with managing the people who will appear in the book tend to keep most memoirists out of hot water with their relationships:

  • changing names, all physically identifying characteristics, lifestyle, and locational facts
  • painting them with compassion and empathy even (and especially) when they behaved badly
  • using humor
  • showing them in action
  • speaking to verifiable fact or to that which is on public record
  • showing them the drafts in advance (where possible) to ask for their feedback and blessing.There’s only so much privacy protection you can implement, however. The individuals will still be able to identify themselves (obscuring your spouse’s info, for example, can only go so far); readers who know you, know your publishing record, or know those represented in the work will still be able to identify the parties involved on the page.

All this is to say, while you can focus on your own experience of your story and craft those who appear in it with care, upon publication and public reception of the book (and, importantly, its characters), friends, family, and co-workers past and present could still feel invaded, and those feelings can range from mild disappointment to severed ties or even a lawsuit.

Some memorists truly do know they’re able to write their stories and are supported and bolstered by their communities, and their bravery with the form is how we have been able to be moved by so many great works.

Others hesitate, fingers over the keyboard, unsure how those in their lives will respond.

Because a writer must write- it is your biological imperative and your way of exploring your world- you then have 3 options:

  1. Wait until they have passed as Joanna Rakoff has done with her beautiful and tragic upcoming memoir The Fifth Passenger
  2. Plunge ahead and suffer the consequences of estrangement as Helen Freemont did with her book The Escape Artist
  3. Turn to fiction or autofiction as an excellent alternative storytelling option.

hanging books

 

3. The Novel and Autofiction

As opposed to writing memoir, which must as its “contractual obligation” between writer and reader provide a narrative as close to 100% factually accurate as possible, the novel and autofiction allow for the real to be mixed with the imagined. These genres open you up to all manner of opportunity, namely that you can keep your private life private, still have the same narrative option of inviting the reader along your journey, and enable you to maintain the relationships with those in your life such that you’ll continue to be invited home for Thanksgiving.

The Novel

The primary difference between a memoir and a novel is reader expectation: where memoir is marketed as a true story and is required to do its utmost to be an accurate depiction of a real life with real events and people, a novel has no requirements whatsoever and can be any story you wish to tell and incorporate as much imagination as you like.

Purpose

The story purpose is also slightly different but only insofar as the speaker or protagonist’s engagement with the reader:

  • Memoir is designed for us to make sense of our experiences and to bring the reader on the journey we ourselves went on during a period of our lives.
  • The novel is designed to bring the reader on a journey of a protagonist’s experiences and through dramatic action follow them as the protagonist arrives at a changed version of themselves.

Truth or “Truth”

By writing a novel, you’re operating under no auspices that any aspect of your story is true, which means you can range on the truth meter from 0-100% without anyone knowing exactly what is true and what is made up. The freedom is immense!

close up eye
Most novels are autobiographical in some way, but you can hide behind the genre and maintain as much privacy for yourself and those factoring into the story as you like, which is a tremendous comfort.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

– Tim O’Brien (whose incredible book of connected short stories, The Things They Carried, is based on his experiences as a solder in Vietnam)

What’s interesting is the interplay between the real and the imagined and how the later is often more real than the former. In this space, such questions around the human condition such as “what is truth” arise and can be toyed with in the mind of the writer. Truth is subjective fact regardless, a matter of an individual’s perceptions, meaning an individual’s truth may be factually inaccurate but psychically more real, more honest than any historical event.

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

– Albert Camus

Speaker Engagement

Memoir is a braiding together of event and the speaker’s relationship to it (as they provide commentary on their thoughts/feelings regarding the narrative events), whereas a novel plants the reader in the details of the narrative world and leaves them there through a combination of exposition and scene to move through the developing story, never coming up for air or breaking the “fourth wall” (unless it’s for specific effect) to hazard their own inner lives along with the speaker’s until the last page.

Character Obfuscation
If you write your true story as a novel, as long as you’ve done good work protecting all parties involved, you’re under no requirement to admit to any of it being true, and no one can say boo if they *think* they identify themselves in your book.

elderly woman's hands cupped in lap over gingham skirt
The people in your life will still mine the book to see if any aspect of them has made an appearance. They may find hints that one character or another bears a resemblance (or that their personhoods are scattered across multiple characters), but if you’ve done your good work, their guess is as good as anyone’s, and while they may have feelings, which are valid and anyone’s guess as to how they’ll manifest in your relationship, importantly, they won’t be able to take significant action on a larger (legal) scale.

Ironically even if your novel is entirely fabricated, people will still imagine you as the protagonist and have a hard time not ascribing the ongoings and personality of that character to you as the author. So really, since you can’t win there, all you can do is write a good story, protect those who appear in the book, and know you’ve done right by your subject- and the people in your life.

Autofiction

Autofiction is a relatively new hybrid of memoir and fiction that gives the memoirist the veil of fiction under which to make minor adaptations to your story or through which you can infuse your story with subjectivity specific to the lens through which you may view your life.

Ocean Vuong said this about his memoir/fiction book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous:

“For me, as a poet, I was always beginning with truth.”

cabin surrounded by autumn foliage

Autofiction is not a genre as far as shelving goes (Autofiction is still classified as memoir), making it slightly more of a challenge to market it (though plenty of modern writers such as Rachel Cusk, Ocean Vuong and Sheila Heiti have done it with great success), it’s a viable and creative way of smoothing out the edges of your story, so you can still enjoy most of the contractual tenets of memoir but continue to enjoy your relationships as well.

As with all travel, there is typically more than one way to arrive at a destination, so if you have an important story to tell, you’ll want to firm up your own ideas about how to approach it, what your priorities are as an artist and as a person, and feel comfortable about the literary container that will hold your story before you begin writing.

Then you’re free to tell your story, maintain your relationships, and move your readers: a perfect balance.

 

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