American literary critic Leslie Fiedler once wrote: “Henry Miller wrote novels, but he calls his protagonist Henry, often Henry Miller, and his books are in this gray area between memoir and novel.”
If you’re a novelist considering writing a memoir, or a memoirist writing a novel, you’ll probably discover there are some strong likenesses between the two. In a memoir, just as you don’t tell your entire life story, in a novel, you don’t try to tell everything you could possibly tell about your protagonist. In both cases, you focus on the story you’re trying to tell. Readers don’t want to know everything – they only want the things that count, that matter most.
If you’ve read very many memoirs, you also see that they, like novels, are rich with scenes and dialogue, not just plain narration. Whether you’re writing fact or fiction, you must hone your scene-writing skills – a boon for writers switching genres, because these skills will already be in your repertoire.
That said, the two are bottom-line different genres, and different rules surely apply to each. If you’re considering switching from a novel to a memoir (or vice versa), what should you know before you begin? We asked five writers with published memoirs as well as novels for their expert advice.
Spicing up your scenes – in both memoir and novel
How do you make a dull, uninteresting scene in a memoir more compelling? Do you use basically the same techniques you use in a novel? Second, in memoir writing, how much are you bound to what “really happened?” After all, how accurate is memory, anyway? Can a memoir be spiritually true if not factually true?
Let’s look at each of these questions, beginning with scene writing.
According to Sheila Kohler, author of 10 novels, three story collections, and a memoir, scenes are important in memoir, and the “technique is very similar in fiction and nonfiction: all the old tricks apply…foreshadowing, or hinting at what is up ahead, trickling in the information that leads ineluctably to the conclusion, echoing and reiterating – things of that kind.”
For Stephanie Dickinson, author of the novel Half Girl as well as the memoir Girl Behind the Door, scene writing, regardless of genre, calls for capturing the inner life as well as various outward manifestations of the people in your book. If you get into your narrator’s head, and do it well, you can make practically anything interesting: “Cutting a radish on a kitchen counter or standing in a Whole Foods checkout will fascinate readers if the narrator’s inner thoughts intrigue them.”
Be sure to use dialogue as well, she says, and don’t hesitate to use concrete description to make your characters come alive. “For me, physical description is essential and enriches the writing,” Dickinson says. “Let us see shoulder scrunches, furrowed brows, and rolled eyes. Let us hear sighs, groans, and snickers. Facial expressions and physical description of characters bring them to life whether you are writing a memoir or a novel.”
But let’s say you’ve got a scene that falls flat, one that’s downright dull and uninteresting. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the scene has no energy, nothing sparking it, no juice. In that case, says Beth Kephart, author of numerous memoirs, including the upcoming Wife | Daughter | Self, “something larger is at issue – the voice, the tone, the arc, the plot. If you find yourself bored by your own work, then it’s time for revision.” According to Kephart, two possible problems might account for a flawed scene. One is “excessive elongation,” or “too much detail, too many words, too little faith in the reader who might not need to be told how, for example, ‘Jane rose from her chair and walked across the room toward the door and then reached the door and then reached for the knob and then turned the knob and…’”
A second problem might be the very opposite: “excessive compression, in which the moment and its meaning race past, undifferentiated by color or mood.” For her, a helpful revision strategy is to take a break from her own writing to focus on someone else’s briefly. “Practice the arts of distillation and extension by extracting a broken scene from another’s work (we find these in published books all the time) and working on making that scene better,” she advises. “The tools and the insights we gain through such practice will ultimately inform our own work.”
Rebecca Chace, author of one memoir, two novels, and a children’s book, takes a harsher line on the drab scene. “If there is a dull, uninteresting scene in either a novel or a memoir, my first instinct is to cut it. Ask yourself if it is absolutely necessary. It usually isn’t, or it wouldn’t be so dull and uninteresting.” This doesn’t mean that writing that scene was a waste of time, however: “Maybe it was something you had to try out as part of your drafting process, but it turned out to be a dead end.” In that case, it’s served a good purpose, but, she says, “Best to get rid of it.”