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How to switch from novels to memoir (and vice versa)

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.

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The truth of the matter

With memoir writing, you face an additional concern that you don’t face with novel writing. How much liberty can you take in spicing up a scene? What about fabrication? What about the “truth” of the scene you write – or, by extension, the truth of anything you write in a memoir?

Rob Roberge, author of four books of fiction and Liar: A Memoir, reminds us of the nature of memory itself: “Nabokov said that ‘memory is a revision.’ The initial event – the source – is never totally accurately repeated once it is processed in our minds, let alone when it starts coming out of our mouth as a narrative we tell.” Does this mean you have carte blanche to fabricate? Not exactly, but a different standard can apply beyond strict factuality: “As for embellishments,” says Roberge, “I think you should stay as close to the truth as you know it. Memoirs (and novels, for that matter) should not set out to tell the truth but their truth/a truth/a series of truths.” 

“A memoir has to be spiritually true even if not 100% fact-checkable,” says Dickinson. “What is factual truth but an approximation and sometimes a best guess?”

In the case of a memoir set back in your deep past, how much can you literally remember as you write each scene? “How do you remember dialogue from years before unless you’ve kept journals?” asks Dickinson. “How can recall be accurate if we are remembering not the actual event but our memory of it?”

According to Kohler, “I think you have to stay as close to the emotional truth as you can. It is that which is strong in both fiction and nonfiction – a strong and honest voice.” She offers as an example Penelope Mortimer’s semi-autobiographical novel The Pumpkin Eater, “which is fiction but very close to her life – it’s the honesty that comes across so engagingly.”

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For Kephart, truth is the bottom-line requirement in memoir. “Despite everything that is happening in this world, despite the many memoirs that stretch toward fiction with their composite characters and their imagined scenes, I still believe that those who are writing memoir have a responsibility to search for – to journey toward – the truth.” She does concede that “uncertainty plays a big role in memoir.” Even so, “outright fabrications should not.”

Chace emphasizes this uncertainty, based on authorial subjectivity. “Each of us is free to write our own version of the same story, and each is equally ‘true’ in memoir writing. Subjective memory is the most unreliable narrator, which can be freeing, actually, just as it can be in fiction.” You should see this unreliability as a plus, she says: “This can be a useful tool to borrow from fiction, as you are, in fact, the unreliable narrator of your own life.” For her, one option for a memoirist is “acknowledgement of your own memory being imperfect.”

 

The number of people in your story

In a memoir, how many people are too much? In a novel, how many characters are too many? In either genre, what kinds of problems might you encounter if you have too many? Is there a right number?

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According to Roberge, “You should have as many characters as the book needs. I would advise people earlier in their apprenticeship to remember that the machine with the fewest moving parts is the one least likely to break. More characters…exponential challenges.”

“A large cast of characters is always a bit complicated,” says Chace, “in fiction or memoir.” That said, “I had large groups of friends and family in both my memoir and my first novel,” she admits. The key is to “take care to differentiate everyone clearly and think about who is really necessary to the emotional truth of the story you are trying to tell,” she says.

“‘Keep it simple,’ Charles McGrath once told me,” says Kohler. “I was insulted, thinking he thought me stupid, but the great books are simple: Death in Venice; Anna Karenina; even War and Peace, where there are many threads and many characters, but also many pages.” Kohler’s recommendation? “I think you need to select characters and really develop them, and that’s hard to do if you have too many.”

“I don’t think there are any rules here,” says Kephart, “whether in a novel or memoir. Take The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. That’s a highly peopled novel – and a glorious one. Take Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family – lots of characters there.

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But do keep in mind, she cautions, “If a novel or a memoir presents a cast of many that leaves the reader thinking, ‘This is just one person after another doing one thing after another,’ if what the reader is holding is an undifferentiated crowd, we have a problem. We have multitudes without purpose. We have a book without seeming end. We need an editor.”

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