It isn’t unusual, when you’re starting to write something, to be unsure exactly what kind of concoction you’re creating. If it has some elements of your own, real-life experience, you may think it must be memoir. But you can’t remember everything accurately; in fact, are you sure you were ten when your parents moved to Milwaukee? Plus, you want to make up a few things, because the story really would be better if, instead of moving to Milwaukee, your parents moved to Chicago. Or they joined the circus. Before you know it, your story has veered so far from your real life as to be unrecognizable.
Or maybe you just need to simplify things. In order to focus the story, you realize it would work better if you had just two brothers, instead of four. Or you want to use a waterside setting for the symbolism, even though you grew up inland.
So how do you know what kind of creation you’re making from these disparate elements of truth and fiction?
We have terms for just about every kind of narrative writing: “auto-fiction,” or autobiographical fiction, which is simply fiction based in your own life experience, but with some loosening of the reins on what “really happened.” Autobiographical fiction allows you to play fast and loose with the true story; you’re not giving a deposition in court, you’re seeing what works best for the story, and then fabricating in that direction.
That’s a different beast from memoir. In memoir, you may not remember certain details (do you know for a fact your mother was serving beef bourguignon the night your grandmother was arrested?) but you cleave to the true story as best you can. With memoir, there are devices you can use that let the reader know you’re unsure of where the line is, without outright fictionalizing, such as by out-and-out wondering: “It was likely my mother was serving beef bourguignon, because she made it every week (all that spring she was taking cooking classes).”
And the ultimate goal in any of these sub-genres is the same as in sausage-making: you don’t want the reader to see the process.
I’ve heard the term “fictoir,” for fictionalized memoir, but that term, thankfully, seems to have fallen by the wayside. It always sounded to me too much like “abbatoir,” which is a kind of slaughterhouse – but maybe that’s apt, because in a fictionalized memoir, or autobiographical fiction, it’s kind of a sausage-making operation, where you may start with a structure of a true-to-life story and blend in fictional bits, or you may fabricate a structure and blend in bits from your real life.
The beauty in all this is that, unlike following a recipe from Julia Child, you don’t have to know what you’re putting together until you have a rough draft finished.
And the ultimate goal in any of these sub-genres is the same as in sausage-making: you don’t want the reader to see the process. The reader should just enjoy a seamlessly delicious story that seems as if it was created naturally, just for them, a perfect blend of humor and poignancy, page-turning plot and compelling characters.
And that’s something you can happily create, no matter what you call it.
Award-winning writer Sarah Van Arsdale will be teaching a ten-day intensive in Autobiographical Fiction with Writers Harbor in August, 2019. Learn more: https://www.mainemedia.edu/workshops/item/autobiographical-fiction-aug-11-17-2019/