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Memoir vs. fiction: an article apart?

Inspiration for overdue talk on "a" vs. "the"

Not to drag James Frey back out of  the depths of repressed memory, but I was reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s review in the New Yorker of  Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda, and came across this wonderful little acorn:

That last part is what a lot of fiction writers already know–that in many cases you take liberally from your own life (or those of innocent loved ones) and make a better story of it. Like the proverbial fisherman, we might embellish our yarns with lots of flourishes and exagerrations and perhaps even catch a hyperbolic bass, so that we get closer to what it really felt like. Closer to the truth. One of our great nonfiction instructors, Shari Caudron, and I were e-mailing about it, and she referred to the core of Mendelsohn’s argument:

But the truth we seek from novels is different from the truth we seek from memoirs. Novels, you might say, represent “a truth” about life, whereas memoirs and nonfiction accounts represent “the truth” about specific things that have happened.

Could the difference between memoir and fiction really come down to the article before the word “truth”?

I’m not sure if there’s really such thing as “the” truth, but I do know that I most respect the memoirists and nonfictioneers who dedicate themselves to trying to reel it in. And I don’t think fiction writers get a pass when it comes to truthtelling, either. As we typically say when we get stuck on a story: Where did I lie? That’s usually the spot where the wheels came off.


5 comments on “Memoir vs. fiction: an article apart?

  1. MJ Henry
    February 7, 2010

    And I would posit that “the truth” is fluid and protean. Which is why memoir is about THE story, sure, but it’s also about the desire to create something beautiful and lasting from memory, to take experience (the boring, the mundane, the uncanny) and make it into art, so that it doesn’t merely exist in those coils of our brains, but on a page somewhere.


  2. Lisa Kenney
    February 8, 2010

    Recently, I read a memoir that I’d bought primarily to support the author, but that I’d put to the side with a certain amount of dread. There were two reasons I was reluctant to pick up the book. First, I’m not a great fan of most memoir — I have now and then been a fan of very good or great memoir, but that’s not what most memoir is. Second, the author is notorious for a certain lifestyle that frankly makes me squeamish and I was afraid to read those bits. I broke down and read Stephen Elliott’s, The Adderall Diaries and I was bowled over. It wasn’t so much about the literal narrative, it was about the whole question of truth and perception, although indirectly. I don’t know how much or how little of Elliott’s story is true, but his book made me realize I don’t know how much of the story I believe about my own life is really true either. In fact, I’m not even sure if I know what the word, “true” means.

  3. andreadupree
    February 9, 2010


    Karen Palmer (the novelist and the great!) was also bowled over by the Adderall Diaries; based on both of your reactions, I’ve gotta read it. She’s doing a book talk on Elliott’s Adderall Diaries up in Grand Lake this summer…

    Thanks for your thoughts. You so smart!


  4. K. C. Mead
    July 26, 2012

    What a terrific post! I have definitely been dealing with these questions in a lot of my own writing as I utilize people, conversations, and situations from real life all the time in my fiction works. Of course, whenever I decide to write something I would call nonfiction or memoir, I try to channel J. Boswell and his “The Life of Samuel Johnson” — possibly the most striking biography ever written.

    This actually reminds me of a really cool anthology by Herta B. Feely called, “Confessions: Fact or Fiction?”

    This anthology is an experiment with reader response and desire for literary works to be either fact or fiction. It is a compilation of short stories, some memoir and some fiction, from a variety of authors. However, the reader is not made aware of the genre of any of the stories until the end of the book.

    Here’s her website if anybody’s interested:

    • andreadupree
      July 26, 2012

      Thanks for the tip, K.C.! I’ll definitely look her up. And best of luck with your writing.

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2010 by in The Write Idea.

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