The Pros and Cons of Writing Memoir

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Matthew Barton wake surfing, 2014

So, you want to write a book? Whether to write fact or fiction is a crucial starting point. A large part of my writing journey has been spent finding my voice and the right genre. The first full-length book I finished was a memoir about my time in Lagos, but then I switched to fiction. In the following questions and answers, I share my experience and the reasons I changed.

First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way.

What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

Both are nonfiction. An autobiography typically encompasses a person’s entire life. A memoir is less rigid and can focus on a specific event or timeframe. Even an essay about a single moment can be defined as memoir. My blogs about Lagos are memoir.

What is creative nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction describes real events using the techniques of fiction writers. It reads as a novel, but is factually accurate. Most memoirs fall into this category.

What are the advantages of writing memoir?

Memoir is the most obvious way to present a personal real-life story.

Writing about life is great therapy. Whether it converts to a saleable product depends on craft and marketing.

Memoir is a great entry point for new authors; they can get words on the page without creating the entire story from scratch. Authors can focus on describing predetermined characters, setting and events.

Do you have to be famous to write a memoir?

Anyone can write a memoir. Few people can write a marketable memoir. Before embarking on the memoir path, define your audience. If you are writing for your family to record your experiences and thoughts, go for it. If you want to publish your work for a broader audience, determine what makes your story special enough that others will want to read it. Celebrities have a ready-made fan base, while unknown writers have to work much harder to establish a market. Publishers will likely take a celebrity over an unknown unless the writing is exceptional and he or she shares an inspirational experience, such as survival against the odds, rags to riches, enduring love, or travel with an edge—think Eat, Love, Pray.

What makes a strong memoir?

Strong story composition with conflict and high stakes pulls readers through a book. Typically, writers talk about the three-act structure—a beginning, middle and end; or setup, confrontation and resolution. Real life doesn’t conveniently conform to this format, but a skilled storyteller will manipulate the facts to fit. Other factors, such as voice, pacing and great writing are also essential.

I submitted my memoir to a professional editor for feedback. She wanted more drama to raise the stakes—arguments and personal revelations. This posed a problem: I couldn’t just make up a fight because it suited the story, nor did I want to expose real disagreements with my friends. I soon realized that I valued privacy for my friends, family and myself too highly to ever be a successful memoirist. To write memoir, you have to be comfortable with a high level of personal disclosure, like Krissy Nicholson in Tsunami and the Single Girl, who reveals details about an abortion.

Do you need permission from the people you write about in a memoir?

Legally, there is a risk that people can claim defamation if you portray them in public. In the main, if you stick to the truth, you have a solid defence. Morally, you answer to yourself and your friends. I showed the people who featured in my writing for their opinion. Few were happy. Either they were in it too much, not enough, or they didn’t like how they were portrayed. One major player asked to be left out altogether. I could have proceeded regardless, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationships for the sake of a book. If you intend to go to publication, be prepared for emotional reactions from your characters—people like to be in control of their own narrative.

Why fiction?

I turned to fiction because I resented being constrained by the facts; I craved a solid story arc with big, bold characters. I also wanted to remain on good terms with my friends and family.

I attempted to convert my Lagos memoir into fiction, but this fell over because I merely told the same story in disguise. I threw the whole thing out, enrolled in the Curtis Brown Creative Six Month Novel Writing Course and started again. A slow learner, I made the mistake of basing my next novel on a true story. It wasn’t until I set that aside too, and worked with a mentor from Cornerstones US to create a story from scratch that I finally found my niche. Now, I write mysteries and light thrillers, while I am sneaking plenty of memoir into my blog. See Sunrise Court.

How about you? What stories do you want to tell? Fact or fiction?

Next time: To Be Oneself Or To Be Someone Else—a discussion about the use of pseudonyms.
Most popular blog about writing: My Top Four Editing Tips.

3 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Writing Memoir

  1. Pingback: A Rookie’s Guide to Literary Speed Dating | The Winding Narrative

    • Gbolabo, while I don’t plan to publish a book about my time in Lagos, I share many of these experiences in short form in this blog. If you go to the home page, click on the links under The Nigerian Adventure. Start with Tales from Lagos and at the end of each one, I post a link to the next part of the story.

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