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CREATIVE WRITING INSIGHTS: “A Memoir or a Novel – How Does One Decide Which Way to Craft a Story Based on Real Life Events?” by Lorilyn Roberts

Last updated on July 22, 2023

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Recently on a Linked-In discussion group, someone made this comment:

“I’m strongly biased toward fiction unless you are trading on celebrity or some highly publicized event. Memoirs put out as imparting the wisdom of the elders or holding up your past mistakes as object lessons turn me off. The fact you were a moron yesterday doesn’t make you a genius today. Journals and memoirs may be great for family, but most are less attractive to a general audience and often convey the message of pleading to be loved or admired. Make it fiction, and you can be more candid, and the reader can decide whether your experience was informative, moving or amusing based on its own merits.”

I strongly disagree with his statement and share the following thoughts:

Memoirs are some of the most powerful pieces written today, but people are shortsighted. They don’t always see the value of first-hand accounts in the present. Without memoirs, we have history written by partial observers who bring their own worldview into play—maybe at the expense of writing with accuracy the way the events happened. Second-hand accounts are never as factual as first-hand stories and never as valuable for historical purposes.

Many people love reading memoirs and will look for them in libraries and bookstores. Life experiences written by people reveal more about society than any history book or a journalist covering a story. I am thankful for all the memoirs written today by all sorts of people to give us a peek into the present and the past.

For example, the world wouldn’t have known of Anne Frank if she had not written her diary. She was an unknown 13-year-old kid before her father published her diary.

If you have a compelling story to tell, tell it with passion, revealing your innermost struggles and thoughts. Being “real” with the reader will make your story come alive. In my memoir Children of Dreams about the international adoption of my daughters, I was open and vulnerable. That was the right way to tell that story. I could never have fictionalized it.

I just wrote another book, and this one is fiction, Seventh Dimension – The Door. In contrast with Children of Dreams, I took certain events from my own life and turned them into fantasy. I had a story to tell, and the only way to tell it was as an allegory and to fictionalize it. The point is, do what the story calls for and write it. Don’t let naysayers talk you out of writing your story the way you feel it needs to be told. At the end of the day, you have to live with the result and be happy with the story and the way you wrote it.

These are some thoughts I would consider:  Who is your target audience? What is your purpose in writing your story? Can anyone be hurt or impacted negatively if you write your book as a memoir? If you write your story as a memoir in hopes of making money, you need to write your book as “creative nonfiction” using fictional techniques.

For example, you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to think in terms of “scenes” “plots” and “problems” that need to be solved. The reader needs a takeaway—what can he learn from your memoir that would be meaningful or cathartic? No one wants to read someone’s boring biography.

If you decide to write your book as fiction, you will have more options and won’t run the risk of being sued or worried about divulging something you might regret later. However, you need the skills to write fiction. Writing fiction is harder than writing a memoir because you create a “story” out of fiction and make the plot enticing to read. In a future piece, I will suggest some books for writing fiction that I used in my Master’s in Creative Writing that I found helpful.

I have written an award-winning piece on writing memoirs that‘s posted on my website. Here is the link for anyone interested. Some might find it helpful. How to Write a Memoir in Twelve Easy Steps.

The most important thing as a writer is to keep writing and to keep learning—whether you write fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, and enjoy the journey!

Published inCreative Writing

One Comment

  1. Unknown Unknown

    Excellent post.

    I would add that sometimes the best fiction is based upon the truth of one's own experiences.

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Lorilyn Roberts