What is it about our present state of literary affairs that insists on blurring the line between fiction and memoir? It’s as if to have a narrative come from life lends fiction some undeniability or plausibility. Stranger than fiction? Or stranger than life? The moment we label the writing the questions begin.
One of the glories of writing fiction is that it allows you to inhabit characters, points of view, and states of mind that you might not in actual life. This might indicate that there is an unusual, even unenviable quality of this character’s life. In fact, this is how I look for a character to write about, having gotten into the habit of avoiding characters with uneventful lives. However, in the memoirs I’ve been riveted by–Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road To Everywhere Except Where You Came From–it usually matters less to me how extraordinary the life is.
These memoirs tend to construct a narrative from an incident in the life that might, on initial consideration, seem to offer a thin, even slightly dubious, premise. Often the writer’s story isn’t that remarkable; it is the skill of the writer that elevates the narrative into the art of memoir.
On the other hand, there are those memoirs that seem to blur the genre and offer a presumable fictional take on the writer’s story. Continue reading