Autobiographical Fiction vs. Fictional Memoirs

One of the most common questions from my students is, “How do you decide if you should write a memoir or a novel?” The answer may not always be cut and dry, but experience has taught me that most writers know the answer before they actually pose the question and are just looking for some sort of validation. If they do not know before starting out, then they quickly learn during the writing process. For example, if they find themselves making things up and/or have a vivid imagination, then they should consider writing a novel.

A fictional memoir generally focuses on an actual story, time or event in the writer’s life, but also incorporates enough fiction or fictional technique. An autobiographical novel is a type of novel which merges autobiographical and fictional techniques. In this instance, the names and places in the book are typically changed and events are recreated to give the story more of a dramatic arc. In other words, the events in the author’s life may be altered and thus the writer uses his or her “fictional license.”

Although the terms, “Autobiographical Fiction” and “Fictional Memoirs” are relatively new, the genre is not. It has a rich tradition and has been a good alternative for those who have a story to tell and who want to use a genre that is more accommodating than a traditional memoir. Using these genres which openly utilize fiction techniques helps to avoid what some writers call CYS Memoirs or ‘cover your ass memoirs’ where in the preface the author explains his/her creative process and excuse themselves from being blamed for anything mentioned the book.

The elements used in creating a compelling memoir and works of fiction are similar. They both use drama, conflict, dialogue, scene and descriptive detail. Another vital element of the memoir is the importance of identifying special moments. A moment is the basic unit of dramatic structure, sort of analogous to the scene in fiction. In general, a memoir moves forward by the writer exploring all the important moments in their life and this is done through reflections/thought-processes revolving around the book’s theme or focus.

When all the moments are listed on the page, the writer can figure out what in the situation or character has changed from the beginning to the end of the story, sometimes a special truth or revelation might have emerged. The reader gets the essence of the revelation from reading the writer’s reflections.

Focus is critical to memoir and highlighting important moments that move the story forward. This is done by providing all the details of the moment, including the emotions in a given situation. Diving deep into life’s special moments using all the senses allows the reader to become engaged in the story.

An example of a fictional memoir is True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway that was his last unpublished work after his return from Kenya in 1953. In this book he muses on the act of writing and the author’s role in determining the truth. In other words, what is fact and what is fiction. I recently discovered this book and highly recommend it.

Some Other Fictional Memoirs include:

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
It’s me, Eddie: A Fictional Memoir by Edward Limonov
Grace by Robert Ward
The Professor’s Daughter by R. Igor Gamow
Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
I, Joaquin by Melvin Litton
Deeper Water by Michael W. Boyd
Alzmek: The Fictional Memoir of a Tainted Life by R.M. Guzman
I Mary, Daughter of Israel by Jacqueline Severia Hure
Chain of Fools by Charles B. Sobczak

3 thoughts on “Autobiographical Fiction vs. Fictional Memoirs

  1. Christi Killien

    Very interesting blog! I found this via Sheila Bender sharing it on FB. I like the way you describe the fictional memoir as a series of true moments with a focus, and the autobiographical novel as manipulated personal material (names and places and details changed) used to create a dramatic arc. I’m reading The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, written in the 40s, and I wonder which you would say it is, if you’ve read it. Betty changes neighbors’ names (and still she was sued) …but I think that’s about all…

  2. K.C. Mead

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately actually as I’ve been working on a series of short stories that, originally, were based upon the life of my sibling but have since transformed into something purely fictional.

    Have you checked out Herta B. Feely’s “Confessions: Fact or Fiction?” It’s an anthology she assembled in response to the J. Frey incidence and it’s really interesting.

    Here’s the website if you’re interested: confessionsanthology.com

  3. Joan M

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! It’s an explanation or description of what I’m writing currently! Autobiographical fiction is fitting because my book is so personal, it’s difficult to reveal such information.

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