Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?

I don’t remember what my second grade teacher wore! How can I recall the dialogue when my Dad left 10 years ago? All my summers in Maine blur together. That’s what my students will say tomorrow when I return their first efforts at turning memories into memoir.

“It was very cold the night my mother died …” Anna Quindlen

I don’t remember what my second grade teacher wore! How can I recall the dialogue when my Dad left 10 years ago? All my summers in Maine blur together. That’s what my students will say tomorrow when I return their first efforts at turning memories into memoir. They are mostly 21- and 22-year-old college seniors, plus a few retirees and second careerists, all eager to explore their lives on paper for themselves, friends and the world. No one is famous, although one woman said she won the lottery.

The memory worries will come mainly from marine biologists, psychology and history majors who deal in term papers and lab reports, rarely from poets and fiction writers who have taken enough creative writing workshops to understand, as V.S. Pritchett once wrote about memoir, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Some of these “creative” writers assume such advice excludes their boring lives; and so I have written “Great detail!” in many margins of first essays only to find out that the date rape or house burning down didn’t happen. No, no, you can’t do that, I say. That’s fiction, not memoir. You have to play by the rules; there’s a line you can’t cross. And where is that? they ask. I don’t know, only that if you make up too much, you’ve crossed it. The murkiness makes writer Anna Quindlen choose fiction over memoir. In “How Dark? How Stormy? I Can’t Recall!” (New York Times Book Review), she says that the newspaper reporter in her made her check old weather charts before she could publish the line, “It was very cold the night my mother died.” Like my fact-conscious students, she worries:  “Was it very cold or was that just the trick memory played on a girl who was sick and shivering, at least metaphorically?” And this worry, combined with a lousy memory, makes Quindlen avoid memoir, “a terrain too murky for me to tread.” She says she can’t, like Frank McCourt in “Angela’s Ashes,” “remember half a century later the raw, itching sore that erupted between his eyebrows when he was a boy” So she writes fiction, preferring to create a world “from the ground up, the imagined minutiae of the lives of characters I invent from my knowledge of characters.”

“But what about your true stories?” I would ask, if Anna were in my class. Don’t you tell your friends, family, especially your children, about who you were, who your family was once upon a time? And do you want those stories to last more than one minute? If we stick only to facts, our past is as skeletal as black-and-white line drawings in a coloring book. We must color it in.

I tell the Annas in my class what I tell myself as memoir writer:  Go for the emotional truth, that’s what matters. Yes, gather the facts by all means. Look at old photos, return to old places, ask family members what they remember, look up time-line books for the correct songs and fashion styles, read old newspapers, encyclopedias, whatever—and then use the imagination to fill in the remembered experience. You don’t need a tape recording of what your parents said to “remember” what they said that day. You don’t need a photo of your kindergarten teacher to describe her; the clothes you imagine will match your feeling about her. Maybe you see a red, mini-suited girl; maybe you see a woman in a thick, long black dress with white cuffs. Either way, we see the teacher as you saw her. And who knows? She might even have worn those white cuffs! The subconscious is remembering.

That’s also what I told my mother last week when she called to tell me that an essay I’d sent her about my love affair with horses was wrong. “I picked you up that day you fell off that horse, Sultan.”

“You did not. I still remember everyone staring because my pants were ripped, my knee all bloody on the bus ride home.”

“You were crying in the Pontiac.”

“I was not.”

It was her memory against mine with no one else to ask, so I wasn’t changing my story. It was true for me—the humiliation following my glory riding Sultan—and she could tell her version, I said.

That’s what Rosemary Wolff threatened when her two sons, Geoffrey and Tobias, wrote separate and conflicting memoirs of their youth. (Or so Geoffrey Wolff said once in a workshop I took in Aspen.)

How subjective can you be in memoir, accidently or on purpose? That is a central question, and different writers have different solutions. I teach the possibilities. You might start with a disclaimer the way John Irving did in “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.” He warns readers up front to “Please remember that all memoir is fiction,” and then tells a wonderful story about how a retarded garbage man started him on his career as a writer. You might hint a disclaimer in your title, as Mary Carr does in “The Liar’s Club,” and leave the reader wondering. You might tip off the reader with phrases such as “I imagine her or “Perhaps he said … ” the way Jane Bernstein does in her retelling of her sister’s murder 2,000 miles away and 20 years before. You might use exaggeration as Russell Baker does in “Growing Up,” so that the dialogue of his interview to become a paperboy sounds as if he were being interviewed to head up IBM.

You might even give a lament that you don’t remember, as Bret Lott does in his book, “Fathers, Sons and Brothers,” before he gives a rich description of the morning that his son stopped calling him Mommy:

You might even give a lament that you don’t remember, as Bret Lott does in his book, “Fathers, Sons and Brothers,” before he gives a rich description of the morning that his son stopped calling him Mommy:

The sad thing, though, is that I can’t recall the first day he called me Daddy when I went into his room. I could make up a story about it, here and now; I could tell you how it was on a TuesdayMelanie’s morningand how there seemed something different in his voice as I came up from sleep. …

Whatever else, there’s always Joan Didion’s wonderful permission in “On Reading a Notebook”—that if you remember it, it’s true. I use it often.

Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bash in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.

How it felt to me! What a relief to memoir writers who want to explore the emotional truth of memory. It may be “murky terrain,” you may cross the line into fiction and have to step back reluctantly into really what happened—the struggle creates the tension that makes memoir either powerfully true or hopelessly phony. The challenge of this genre is that it hands you characters, plot and setting, and says, “Go figure them out!”—using fact, memory and imagination to recreate the complexity of real moments, big and small, with no invented rapes or houses burning down. If the challenge intrigues you, imaginatively and emotionally, and you find the right voice—one savvy and appealing enough to make the reader say, “Yes I’ve been there. I know what you mean!”—you have something good. But if the voice you adopt annoys, embarrasses or bores because of lack of insight, then beware. The reader will say, “So what? I don’t care about you!” often in anger.1

It’s that personal, the judgment. It’s YOU, not some anonymous character they are talking about. Like a smile at a cocktail party, the voice of memoir—far more than in fiction—can evoke a quick response. Phony or real. I like this person. I hate this person. Nothing lukewarm or impersonal about it.

That vulnerability—more than a bad memory, I suspect—makes many agree with writer Pam Houston:  “I write fiction to tell the truth.” The seeming anonymity of fiction, even autobiographical fiction, can be creatively freeing, as Jamaica Kincaid shows in “Annie John.” She makes her real-life, older brothers disappear so that the emotional focus is on a girl and her mother, and she calls the story fiction—even though other basics are true. (Kincaid, like the main character, Annie, grew up on the island of Antigua and left at 17.) But if your story is really about Mom in Iowa, why turn her into a half-sister in New York—unless in the transformation, you, like Kincaid, tap into the real story you need to tell?

One essay, out of the 25 I just finished reading, does hook me with its savvy. This young woman of 22, Nicole Ross, already knows what it has taken me years to figure out: that the ambiguity of memoir, its shifting planes of truth and memory, can take you somewhere important:

I want to remember a childhood brimming with sunlight, with just enough suffering to make it seem real. Each Christmas becomes bleaker than the last; it always seems as if there are fewer presents under the tree, and less laughter as my grandparents grow older. Ironically, the Christmases of my childhood have become lavish feasts of endless caroling because I don’t remember them any more. I think that my collection of memories is nothing more than a soothing deception; many details have been supplied by a fertile imagination. It can’t be all bad, though, because my parents still smile at me the way they do in my memories of those early Christmases.

Unlike Anna, Nicole is comfortable with how memory, fact and imagination mix up her Christmases; she trusts the process. I wrote “Great!” in every margin of her six pages. I believed every word, heard the caroling, saw her parents smile.

There is one reason not to write memoir, aside from worries about memory and the restraints on creative freedom:  Mom may not speak to you again if you write her story, and you care. Frank McCourt waited to publish his memoir until after his mother died because he didn’t want to hurt her. Others don’t wait and call their story fiction, so they can tell Mom, family, friends, anyone real who appears on the page: “Of course that isn’t you. I made that part up.” No one is fooled, but you save face, maybe a lawsuit.

A writer does have some fictive leeway even in memoir, I believe—if you are cautious (and not too famous). Tomorrow I will tell the student who wrote about her bulimic roommate that her profile could be just as powerful and less hurtful if she moved the girl next door, changed her hair color and did not call her Kimmie.2 I will tell the class that in a memoir about six months in my marriage, I made a few composite characters of minor characters and wrote this disclaimer in my introduction: “The story is 90 percent factual; the rest is made up to protect those who didn’t ask to be in this book.” The problem was not my husband and my children (I was willing to take my chances with them); it was my friends, like the one who was leaving her husband just as I was deciding to stay with mine. In fact, I had three friends who were thinking about divorce, so in the book, I made a composite character and we met for cappuccino.

Depending on the story’s focus, you sometimes collapse time and characters as well, I will tell my students, and still be “true” on my truth scale. Writer Jack Connor, in a personal essay about a weekend of watching eagles, collapsed three days into one morning and mentioned only two of the four students who accompanied him on that trip. He wanted to capture how young people reawakened in him the simple pleasure of birding even in a mid-January freeze, and the number of days, the number of people, didn’t matter—although in a scientific field report they would. I will show my students how his original journal entry of facts and private observations evolved many drafts later into a published story (“A Lesson from Mott’s Creek”) with a voice and a point of view.


1/11/94      —eagle weekend—

one of the best birding experiences of the last year this weekendthe eagle survey with Jerry Liguori, Brian Sullivan, two folks from Ocean City [mcdermotts?], and on Sunday with Joe Mangion and Bil Seng.

… both days coldand windy, temp in teens, with wind chill, probably below 10, maybe even bordering on zero, but blue sky, growing cloudy on Saturday around one and then mostly cloudy. Sunday, blue until 2 or so and only partly cloudy after that. …


“Binoculars in my fingers, tears in my eyes from the January glare, face stiff from the hard wind, I am standing between Brian Sullivan and Jerry Liguori and wonder, “Why don’t I come out here every single day?”

I will also tell my students about a friend who is writing about her aunt who had a lobotomy 50 years ago. My friend visited the mental institution where it happened, looked up records, talked to a nurse and doctor who remembered her aunt and tried writing what her aunt’s life was like. But those “facts” weren’t enough to recreate the story. She must take an imaginative leap, our writing group told her, imagine herself as her aunt and what would it feel like, maybe write in first person. Draft in hand, my friend can then check with a psychiatrist—”Does this ring true?”—and with relatives, before revising for more accuracy.

The Joan Didions and John Irvings in tomorrow’s class will nod their heads in agreement. The Anna Quindlens will not. They want clear-cut boundaries and would side with my writer friend, Andrea Herrmann, who warns me: “If the writer can make a composite character, what prevents her from making up scenes, blending parts of places together, switching historical time frames?” Making up anything, for them, is crossing the line into fiction and should be called that. But I disagree. If the main plot, characters, and setting are true, if the intent is to make honest sense of “how it felt to me” and tell that true story well (with disclaimers as needed), it’s memoir to me.

In “Why Memoir Now?” Vivian Gornick writes, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.” Use that imagination in memoir, I tell myself and my students, to find the language and complexity of real lives, not imagined ones. It’s OK to trust yourself (with a bit of Quindlen’s and Herrmann’s wariness)—even if you can’t remember the temperature on the night Mom died.

1. James Wolcott’s recent article, “Me, Myself and I,” in Vanity Fair is a good example of that anger. He attacks Anne Roiphe as “the true queen of the daytime soaps,” Creative Nonfiction as “civic journalism for the soul,” and others like Laurie Stone, as “navel gazers”—as if the person, genre and subject (“no detail is too mundane to share”) and not the art sinks the “I” of true stories.

2. This anonymity is essential if, like me, you have students share their work in progress in class. Why should the roommate’s problems become public knowledge?

About the Author

Mimi Schwartz

Mimi Schwartz is a professor emerita in writing at Richard Stockton University and teaches creative nonfiction and memoir workshops nationwide and abroad. She has published eight books, most recently her narrative nonfiction Good Neighbors, Bad Times Revisited: New Echoes of My Father’s German Village (University of Nebraska Press, March 2021).

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