The Memoir/Fiction Divide

            Occasionally a potential personal history client says, “I think I’d like to tell this story as fiction.” The reason is typically to change the names to protect the innocent. Or the guilty.

            This elicits a reaction in me similar to the biblical injunction that man can’t serve two masters. Memoir and fiction are very different genres, and I’m afraid a story would be lost down the crevice between the two.

This photo of a woman named Alma, whom I never met, was a source of inspiration. Photo by John Thompson.

This photo of a woman named Alma, whom I never met, was a source of inspiration. Photo by John Thompson.

            A memoir tells the story of a formative time in a life, not necessarily in a linear fashion, but as truly as memory, which has been influenced by imagination, can produce.

            A novel or short story, in contrast, must have a story arc: a main character’s desires are thwarted. There is a climax and finally a resolution. Memoirs do not necessarily provide the fuel for a good fictional story, nor a cast of intriguing characters. A hero and a villain.

            That said, I have written a novel for which I took inspiration from my childhood summers in Grand Lake, Colorado, from my grandparents who led the family to vacation there, and from the photograph of a African American cook and housemaid whom I never met.


            The catch is that rather than trying to tell my own story (memoir), I used some keepsakes and circumstances to inform the creation of a totally made-up story, set in a time period before my own, with created characters, in my favorite place in the world.

            The joke with my close friends is that the book took me twenty years to write, and takes two nights to read. Nevertheless, the writing—first time fiction is hard, let me tell you—was an absolute delight for me. At one point my husband said to me, “You don’t really want to finish this, do you?” And why should I have, when the writing necessitated weeks alone in a cabin on a mountain lake? And the characters became “my peops.” No, I didn’t want to finish, but I did. The result is Turquoise Summer.

            Friends who are reading it ask me, “Who is Maggie?” “Who are you in the book?” Well, I’m not in the book, except in my memories of setting and shops and what it was like to ride horseback with no guide to rein you in. Some of the characters, specifically the maid and the grandparents, were shaped ever so broadly from real people. But it is a story that I let write itself. It is fiction.

            Memoir is different. To write a memoir, or have one written, a person must be ready to write his or her story as it happened, trusting it to the generosity and curiosity of future readers. A novel could key off of some elements of a memoir, but must have a free life of its own.