Memoir As Adaptation
Memoir for me is fiction. Because the way I see it, memoir is a personal take on life events, a construct, if you will. The closest parallel for me is reality tv, which might be about real people, but to create a story, the boring bits of their lives are left out.
Memoir by its very nature can't be objective, nor is it necessarily about getting all the facts right. When you put yourself at the centre of a story, there's always a possibility that you might be an unreliable narrator. I have one such example as, at one critical event, I was a child: and there is no one left alive who was there, who could verify my story. And although I don't think that I did, I may have misread the situation. One thing I do know: if you asked my siblings about the life events I depict, their version would be entirely different. That is, though, the nature of families, living under the same roof, but experiencing life very differently.
Other People's Feelings
One aspect of writing memoir that nagged away at me like an aching tooth was how best to deal with the potential exposure and hurt to the people in my story. Mary Karr, who has already clocked up three memoirs, has written a new book, The Art of Memoir, which helped me solve this potentially thorny problem. She recommends being upfront, and if those close to you are to appear in your work, give them the opportunity to read well in advance of publication. I know from my own experience that the situation does have to be handled carefully and with the utmost tact.
I understand why some writers choose instead to fictionalise their story, especially if those they write about are alive, and they don't want to risk hurting them. I don't think I could have created fictional characters that the real people wouldn't have recognised as themselves. The way that it worked for me was that I had allowed sufficient time to pass before I wrote my story.
Writing and rewriting what was painful material brought back vivid memories, that I felt had I probably suppressed at the time. I was stunned at how raw the memories were, even though it was more than twenty years since the main character had died. I understood that I would have to revisit the difficult parts of the story in the rewrites, but what I forgot was the proofreading I would need to do. After the copy edit and the typesetting, I've lost count of the times I've had to read and re-read my book. And every time I've done it, it's left me in tears. Even though I can't bear self-pity, I do acknowledge now that the story I've written is a sad one.
By the time I was ready to send my work out to beta readers, self-doubt was staring back at me. I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders: if I was going to tell this story, I wanted to do it right. And the only thing by then that was driving me was fear. It felt like I was one of those fledgling seabirds, standing on the edge of a cliff, looking over the edge, but too scared to take that leap. I was so close to the material that I had no idea whether or not it was even worth finishing. Luckily for me, the beta readers I'd chosen had just the right combination of tough love and empathy. With their encouragement, I decided not to throw away two years of work, and I jumped.
I'm so thankful I did take that plunge, as although I never saw my memoir as a form of therapy, there has been catharsis. The most difficult book, the one I had to write, is done now and I feel liberated. I'm looking forward to getting back to what I want to write, the first of which is another thriller. And of course, even though I know it's genre fiction and I have to be careful not to include anything but very carefully disguised authorial voice, I don't suppose I'll be able to resist adding in another little piece of me.
But now it's over to you.
Do you regard the genre as fiction or non-fiction? And how has the experience of writing memoir been for you? I'd love to hear from you.
Buying a House in New Zealand
Retiring to Australia and New Zealand (with Deborah Penrith)
Find out more about the author and future publications, including the Lambert Nagle short story, Contained, in Capital Crimes by connecting with her below.
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