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Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 2

Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 2


The word memoir comes from the French word memoria, meaning reminiscence. A memoir is a nonfiction, or factual, collection of memories an individual writes about that took place in his or her personal life. It is a subcategory of an autobiography but with a narrower focus.

A few definitions: an autobiography is nonfiction, written by a person who gives an account of his own life. A biography is also nonfiction, written by a person about another person, usually a celebrity. Both biographies and autobiographies tells stories of a life, while a memoir usually tells a story from a life.

So, if I wrote about my complete life up to this point, I’d write an autobiography. If I wrote about a man I despised shooting the man I loved and claiming it was self-defense, I’d be writing my memoir Angel Hero.

When you pick up a memoir, you deserve to know what genre you’re reading. You may think it’s a work of solid nonfiction, but you may be wrong. You may be sipping teaspoons of fiction, or even gulping down cups of them.

Gross deceptions, like those James Frey was guilty of when he lied about his novel A Million Little Pieces, give memoir a bad name. Being deceived this way leaves a foul taste in the mouths of readers who think they’re reading a true story. When one memoir veers off the track, all memoirs may appear suspect.

But most memoirs are not fabricated. Readers don’t have to be fooled as long as authors follow these guidelines:

Standard One: Three Memoir Sub-Genres

Memoirs that are totally true should be labeled Nonfiction Memoirs. In these books, a man doesn’t brag about being in jail for three years if he was only behind bars for three hours. A woman doesn’t claim to own a diamond necklace if she does not. Memory isn’t infallible, but ethical writers try hard to recall their experiences and write them down as accurately as possible. Nothing in the nonfiction memoir should be made up.

A different label is needed for writers who depart from what really happened. Perhaps the writer has invented dialogue, or combined two or three characters into one, or changed the location of an important meeting, or created a new event. Such work, to borrow a phrase from the movies, should be labeled Based on a True Story.


Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 3

Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 3


For writers who do not invent dialogue, or make up events, or combine characters, but who do fictionalize details, a third category is necessary. If the writer tells the truth about events that actually occurred, uses genuine dialogue, and only changes details such as dates, names of places and people and their appearances, an appropriate designation would be a Fictionalized Memoir.

I came up with this definition because I needed a way to categorize my second edition of Angel Hero, published in October 2015. In the book, I changed the details of Who, When, and Where to protect people’s identities, but I did not change the events or the dialogue, or create composite characters or events, or anything else that would require me to call this version Based on a True Story as defined in the previous post. Angel Hero is a true story. (My first edition, published in April, 2014, was disguised as an inspired-by-a-true-story novel.)

Standard Two: Based on a True Story

How do you determine if a memoir is based on a true story? Posing the following questions to the author would determine the answer:

  1. Are there any fictional characters or settings or scenes in your memoir? 2. Are there any composite characters? 3. Have you combined events? 4. Did you add any significant element to the story that you or someone else know to be untrue? If the answer is yes to any of these, your work is fictional (a novel, a novelette, a short story, a screenplay) and based on a true story.

Standard Three: Authors and Libel

At the very least, each memoir needs a one-page author’s declaration that precedes the narrative. “About The Book” should describe in detail the standards and methods used to tell the story. Any author embarrassed to reveal his bag of tricks should think twice about whether he is willing to risk lawsuits, jail, defamation, or all three.

Authors can be sued for libel. Libel is defined as written defamation. Defamation means a false statement, made with malice (reckless disregard for the truth), which damages the person about whom it is made. Even if the identity of that person is disguised, as long as they’re recognizable, the author can be sued for libel. Slander, another form of defamation, is verbal rather than written.

In 2014, shortly after Angel Hero was published, I asked an entertainment lawyer to read my book so I could be sure it wasn’t libelous. (He said it was not, and gave me a five star review on Amazon.)

Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 4

Writing a Fictionalized Memoir, Part 4

Before writing a memoir, you should pinpoint your reasons for writing. Want to publish for an audience beyond family and friends? Then you need to understand where your work fits in. Will there be a market for a book like yours? Can you present your experiences in such a way as to appeal to a broad audience?

If you want your work to be read, you’ll need to view it from a reader’s perspective. Does the story grab your attention? Does the language flow from one scene to the next? Is this something you would stay up late reading and recommend to others?

But how do you go about writing a compelling story? The way I did it was to rewrite and rewrite until I got it just the way I wanted it. I credit my daily writing practice with enabling me to fulfill the promise I made to Vic Lazzarini in 1985, to hone my writing skills until I could write such a compelling true story about him that readers would clamor to read it.

The other side of the coin is reading a lot. The best writers I know say they read widely so as to absorb a myriad of different writing styles, thus enriching their own writing.

Patricia Hampl, well-known memoirist, thinks writers are resigned to the limitations of language. “How much reality can subject-verb-object bear on the frail shoulders of the sentence?” she asks. “Oh, if only stories could tell what I have in me to tell.”

Nevertheless, memoirists are trying hard to tell their truths. The memoir, once considered an obscure literary form, is now considered the signature genre of the age. In a cover story on “The Age of the Literary Memoir” in the New York Times Magazine, critic James Atlas stated: “Fiction isn’t delivering the news. Memoir is.”

The contemporary memoir affirms the power of first-person voice in imaginative writing. Hampl thinks a reader’s love of memoir is a craving for the intimacy of this first-person voice; for the deeply satisfying sense of being spoken to privately. “We want a voice speaking softly, urgently, in our ear,” Hampl says. “Which is to say, to our hearts.”

Thank you for reading. I hope I have spoken a bit of my truth to your hearts.


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