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“Memoir or Fiction--That is the Question”
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
October 2019
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
October 2019

When I started conceptualizing my novel, Things Unsaid, about five years ago, I constructed a plot relevant to baby boomers (the “sandwich generation”) and their aging parents and adult (or teenage) children.   Baby boomers have to face difficult truths about themselves and about the impossible choices they will have to eventually make.  With a Janus-perspective—one face turned towards parents’ needs as they age, and one face turned towards children who continue to need their support and comfort—many of us baby boomers are sandwiched between the family we are born into and the one we create as adults.

I had to decide about the profiles of the family members and the coming-of-age in the 50s and 60s, if I was going to give a backstory to Things Unsaid. They say, “Write what you know,” so I set the backstory in Ohio, in a suburb where I grew up.  I could name streets, popular teenage hangouts, schools, the political and cultural attitudes of the middle class.

Memoir vs. Fiction

While I looked at childhood scenes I remembered, I began to realize I needed to make a decision:  memoir or fiction.

A majority of my author friends were writing memoirs.  But they felt the need to tell a story in such a way that it would not hurt people they knew.  So, experiences were left out,  controversial scenes were censored or they waited until the main characters had died. While every child may think she knows her parents, that’s an illusion, a fiction.  Each family member sees differently and remembers what they choose to or only what they can bear.  I wanted the freedom to impose a narrative pattern on both memories and imagination.

Consequently, memoir wasn’t going to work for me.

I wanted the characters to be riveting, even extremely unpleasant—the people a reader feels glad to have never met. So I began to imagine more dramatic situations with intricate plots and subplots. A few of the characters were familiar, drawn from scenes from my own life and those of close friends.

I leaped into my debut novel, Things Unsaid, imposing a narrative pattern on the scenes, and drawing upon the memories of growing up in the 60s in Akron, Ohio.  Half remembered events…. memories of memories of memories.  When I couldn’t remember a teenage feeling or a parent-teenage interaction, I made it up or included a friend’s recollection.

I was moving into a different relationship with my past, however. Certainly not a memoir as the characters took on a life of their own and were invented to be more conflicted, and more engaging.  After seven revisions, some were completely deleted.  I started reshaping characters, making composites drawn from memory, imagination, and listening to friends talk about their families.

I was entering the realm of fiction and no longer could even consider memoir as the vehicle of the story, even for the venue of Akron, Ohio. 

But when turning life into fiction—what, then is truth? And memory is subjective and often involuntary too.  Just as imagination is.  Memory and imagination hold hands in truth-telling.  I want my readers to recognize their own lives in the story I have written, to connect the dots between scenes, to complete the story from their own experiences.  The emotional truth in Things Unsaid has scenes originating from, but not exactly like, my own family’s and there are other scenes adapted from friends, favorite novels, movies and anywhere else I could find rich material of shared moments of a family’s life. 

Everyone has a story to tell and I thought some of my friends’ stories as well as mine would make great scenes for a novel, so I started recording them and exploring my composite characters. I had the freedom to impose a narrative pattern on memories. But, when family and friends know you have written a novel, they try to see themselves in the novel.  Ironically, the scenes they identify are often the ones I completely imagined.  So, all you authors out there—beware.  The most frequent question at book events—and I am asked every time—is how much of this story is based on your life?  Some friends and family will look into every sentence to see themselves!

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  • Raine Fraser Writing

    Thank you for this post, Diana. I'm writing something now which is based on real people and events. I never considered it memoir. But the main character is loosely based on my mom. Every time we talk about the story I always find myself saying "Not that you're anything like that", just so she's clear. Your observations remind me I just have to let this story unfold; in the end, I can't control what anyone sees in it. (Also love the line "the people the reader is glad to have never met.")