“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Those familiar opening lines from Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield are narrated by the title character. They pose a question that can also apply to memoirs, where the main “characters”—the authors themselves—explore their personal experiences and unique life journeys. David Copperfield has been called a “fictional memoir.”
Today’s memoirs differ from many autobiographies of yesteryear in which writers told their life story in an informational, usually chronological, way, from birth to the present. Today’s memoirists use creative techniques of narrative nonfiction. Memoirs may resemble novels as they focus on pivotal experiences in the author’s life to weave a story that is dramatic, focused, and meaningful.
To give memoirs the feeling of a novel, writers call upon fiction elements: characters and character development, a viewpoint, “plotting,” conflict, vivid settings, well-paced action, an eventual climax, and a resolution. Themes are another vital element. Whether it’s a novel or memoir, we do not want readers to finish our book and think “So what?” Rather, we hope readers FEEL something and gain new insights and perspectives from their reading experience.
So how can fiction elements work in memoir writing?
Characters. With a memoir, the main character is clear: It is the author, who narrates in first-person to share true stories from her/his own life. Critics say the best memoirs create a feeling of intimacy through open, honest writing. Since people often cannot accurately recall every event or conversation that occurred years ago, they rely on calendars, diaries, letters, photographs, and talks with other people who were present.
Like novelists, memoirists aim to bring people to life by showing their diverse human traits, motivations, and behaviors. And though the narrator might emerge as heroic in some respects, in The Memoir Notebook, author C.S. Lakin warns, “Avoid making yourself the superhero of your story. As with fiction, readers relate to real people. If you portray yourself as the hero in every situation—or the pathetic victim—you will turn off your readers.”
Like fictional characters, the memoirist changes from the beginning to the end. She/he learns something new, grows as a person, gains a different perspective. Once you identify what that change will be, you can decide how and when to dramatize critical points along the way.
Plot. Memoirs involve a “plot” but not an invented one, since they are factual. The focus is on a remarkable period or life-changing experience in one’s life, perhaps an adventure, trip, job, family crisis, or relationship. Like characters in a novel, the memoirist and other people in the “story” face obstacles and problems while pursuing goals. The “story” shows what happens and why it matters. As a memoir author, you will show what you wanted during that time in your life, what motivated your choices, and the consequences.
Show. Don’t Tell. (SDT) Memoirs contain specific details that draw readers inside the experience. We want them to think, “I know how that feels.” Showing, rather than telling, is an important tool. Compare the summary below with the section below that.
Summary: My father looked sad and discouraged as he told Mom that he and his fellow workers had been laid off.
Using SDT: That evening, Daddy did not smile and bend down with his arms opened wide for our after-work hugs. No chocolate bars or chewing gum came from the pockets of his creased gray work pants. Instead, he blinked and bit his lower lip as he trudged into the kitchen and told Mom in a heavy voice, “They laid off our whole division today.”
The second passage includes dialogue, which can add life to a memoir, just as it does in fiction. Showing a person’s body language helps readers to form their own conclusions about how people feel.
Sensory details. “Showing” involves helping readers to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. This draws them inside the memoirist’s experience, especially when the settings or events are unfamiliar. Writers must go beyond the obvious and the ordinary. As William Zinsser says in On Writing Well, readers don’t want to hear that “the Grand Canyon is awesome, or that Venice has canals.”
With specifics in mind, author V.S. Pritchett described Istanbul, Turkey, as “a city of steep, cobbled, noisy hills,” and wrote: “Mostly the shops sell cloth, clothes, stockings, shoes, the Greek traders rushing out, with cloth unrolled, at any potential customer…everyone shouts, you are butted by horses, knocked sideways by loads of bedding…” In his book August in My Father’s House, Michael Ignatieff used vivid verbs and similes to describe a storm: “A shutter bangs against the kitchen wall and a rivulet of sand trickles from the adobe wall in the long room where I sit. The lamp above my head twirls in the draught. Through the poplars, the forks of light plunge into the flanks of the mountains and for an instant the ribbed gullies stand out like skeletons under a sheet.”
Have you read a good memoir lately? This sampling shows the broad range of experiences, topics, and writing styles they encompass:
• Educated (Tara Westover)
• When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
• The Liars’ Club and Lit (Mary Karr)
• Marley & Me (John Grogan)
• I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
• Bossypants (Tina Fey)
• Running With Scissors (Augusten Burroughs)
• Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
• The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
• Tuesdays With Morrie (Mitch Albom)
• Night (Elie Wiesel)
• Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
• Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland (Tory Bilski).
As you read quality memoirs, ask yourself how the author effectively used fiction techniques to create a compelling true-life story. How do you feel while reading it? How might this person’s experience affect your own life? And if your life experiences and insights could interest other people, consider writing your own memoir.
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.