When I enrolled in a master’s course at university to study writing at the postgraduate level in my late twenties, it came as something of a shock to me that almost all of my fellow students were retired or much older people interested in writing just one thing: their own story. Perhaps it was my relative youth and my correlating lack of life experience that meant I didn’t really understand why. After all, nothing much had happened to me at that point. (In fact, it’s over a decade later and nothing much has happened to me even now.)
But it wasn’t just that I’d stumbled across a rare collection of people focused on telling their own stories. These people, I’ve since discovered, are everywhere. And since there are just as many – probably a lot more – people wanting to read the real life stories of others, it makes sense that so many people pursue this avenue of writing.
But it’s not just as simple as putting it all out there. Writers who want to tell their own stories have plenty to consider.
Memoir: a record of one’s own life and experiences
In most cases, people wanting to tell their story also want the credit for it, both as the writer and as the person who has lived the events that comprise the story. It’s easier to get people to read your memoirs if you already have a profile of some sort – politician, businessperson, sportsperson – or if you’ve done something outrageous, courageous or almost unbelievable.
Most of those people in my master’s course weren’t famous. They were just ordinary, everyday people who thought their story was worthy of being told. The advent of self-publishing has certainly contributed to the ease with which people without profiles can write and produce their memoirs, although publicising the existence of the book remains a source of difficulty without a traditional publisher’s backing or some specialist marketing knowledge.
Some memoirs are written and published anonymously, usually when the exploits contain sexual elements or explorations. Writing under a pseudonym, Belle du Jour published The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl and The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl, the inspiration for the television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. But it seems as though even if you do publish a memoir anonymously that readers can’t stand not knowing who the author is and do just about anything and everything to figure it out. Belle du Jour later outed herself as Brooke Magnanti, a child health scientist who supplemented her income during her doctoral studies by working as an escort, only revealing her real identity when she thought she was going to be exposed anyway.
One thing – one very important thing – to consider when writing your memoir is how much you end up revealing about the people in your life, both those close to you and those on the fringe. These people often haven’t chosen for their stories and their secrets to be revealed but in order for you to tell your story, sometimes you have to tell a part of theirs. These people may resent you for exposing them without their consent.
In 2016, I helped John “JJ” Jeffrey to write and publish his memoir, Paula & Me. In the introduction, he wrote, “Of course, the story of my life is – for the most part – the story of my life with Paula. We were married for forty-two years and together for more than forty-five…” His wife had passed away earlier that year but for those whose stories encompass people still living, their feelings about how they are represented in the story have to be a consideration. JJ partially resolved this issue by naming only family and friends and leaving anyone who may have had a problem with their inclusion unnamed.
Faction: blending fact with fiction in creative writing
This is a term I’ve only recently become familiar with from reading Glenice Whitting’s Something Missing. Glenice and I studied writing together in the late 1990s and as I was reading her latest book, I realised it was a thinly veiled story of her own life. Later, when I read an interview she’d done, she used the term “faction” to describe what she’d written.
I wondered why she didn’t just a write a memoir. Perhaps it was because she’d already established herself as a fiction writer with her first book, Pickle to Pie. Perhaps she thought her story wasn’t quite interesting enough and needed just a dash of fiction to bring it up to publishing standard. Perhaps she wanted to hide behind the altered names. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
There are a number of advantages in this type of writing. You don’t need to do a significant amount of research or creation, meaning you can really focus on writing beautiful prose. You can disguise your significant others if the inclusion of their roles in your life might cause them distress. And you don’t need to convince a publisher that you’re important enough for your story to be published because it’s ostensibly fiction, despite the number of included facts that your family and friends will recognise.
But there are also a few potential dangers in choosing to write faction. Readers who don’t know that the story is essentially the real story of the author may want to critique the plot and writers might take offence that it has been deemed lacking. After all, the “plot” is their life. Also when editors suggest changes, the author’s inclination may be to respond, “But that’s not what really happened.” It’s a valid objection in a memoir but not necessarily in a work of faction.
Faction is very popular these days, particularly using famous historical figures (although writing faction that involves others – instead of yourself – requires huge amounts of research to get the story right and to make sure the fictional components are consistent with the factual ones). But it’s always exciting, especially to me, when new types of writing come along. It just goes to show that we haven’t quite reached the point of endlessly recycling the same stories in the same ways as is sometimes alleged.
Fiction: imaginative narrative, especially in prose form such as novels or short stories
You don’t have to be a writer or even a reader to know exactly what fiction is. It might be inspired by real life events and people but it is writing that is primarily invented, imagined, made up, not true and not intended to be taken as anything other than the work of a creative and fertile mind.
For most writers, our lives aren’t anywhere near interesting enough to commit to writing either faction or memoir so we indulge in the wonder of imagining other lives, other people, other worlds, other narratives to come up with a story. And when we do include elements from our own lives, they are usually just starting points that end up completely unrecognisable in the end. I fall into this category. And they have to be unrecognisable. I spend what feels like ninety percent of my life tapping away on a laptop and nobody in their right mind would want to spend an entire book reading about that.
For those wanting to fictionalise their life story, it usually involves sticking somewhat closely to the events as they happened but adding a lot of imaginary elements to increase the levels of excitement. It also usually means that when an editor suggests a plot change and assuming the author agrees that it makes the story better, there’s less resistance to the alteration. Comparatively anyway. When Stephen King advises you as a writer that you need to be prepared to “kill your darlings” in fiction, it’s a metaphor, not something that we’re also expected to do in faction or memoirs.
I used to be very much against the idea of ordinary people writing memoirs. I thought it was self-indulgent. And I hated being forced to read them in high school (given I’m more of an action-adventure, thriller and mystery reader, it makes sense). But I’ve come to realise it’s no more self-indulgent than any other kind of writing. Me wanting to tell my fictional stories is self-indulgent. So good luck to anyone who can find an audience for anything they want to write. That’s one of the ultimate determinants of the worthiness of telling your story.
But it’s useful to consider the faction and fiction alternatives as a means of presenting your real life in writing in the same way that it’s useful to consider a screenplay as an alternative to a novel. Identifying the right format for you and your story is one of the keys to doing it justice.