Tuesday, June 24, 2008

memoir vs. fiction, what to do, what to do

Lately, some really incredily fine memoirs have come across my desk, Ann Hood's wrenchingly brave Comfort, about the death of her 6 year old, and Elizabeth Mccracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about her stillborn baby. At the same time, I think I've also read one too many memoirs about generically abusive families. (Tolstoy was wrong, all unhappy families are not different.)

Still, I've been thinking a lot about the difference between writing memoir and fictionalizing moments that have happened in life. I've had some dramatic things in my life to write about--the early death of my healthy fiance, who died in my arms from a heart attack, a mysterious nearly always fatal blood disease I had for a year after the birth of my child, and the death of a child I carried for four months, and though I wrote essays about each, I felt a driving need to turn it all into fiction, to make these episodes into as much art as I could--and as much of an escape.

So, the question is why did I choose fiction over memoir and should I have? And the answer is, I'm not sure and I don't know.

Do I get distance from the subject with fiction, or is it just more satisfying for me? Am I thinking about this because I admired the two memoirs and think well, hey, maybe I should write one of my own? Of is it because memoirs have that built in publicity hook that gets you on The Today Show? (I was never on for my novels, but my essay got me on twice.) And who wants to write something just for that? (OK, I admit, I do a little bit....) But when marketing issues start to take over the pure pleasure of the writing (i.e. to which groups could you target your memoir?) something isn't quite right.

Clearly, I'm befuddled here. Maybe it's all because I'm in the midst of the giddy pleasure of selling my novel and the subsequent panic about starting a new novel and wondering if it's any good, or if it will sell or any number of things. I'd love to thoughts on memoirs, do you read them? Do you write them (I just noticed I spelled write, right. How Freudian is that?) Which ones do you read and why?

And, of yes, I could still use that valium.


Clea Simon said...

Very good questions, Caroline. Very big issues. I moved from writing memoirs (three, more or less) to fiction because I was done writing about myself and I wanted to have some fun. But the novels I write are mysteries,which are about imposing order on the world (as opposed to memoirs, which are about making sense of your life). So... I don't know.

Caroline said...

Clea, that's really interesting--I think I've tried to make sense of my life through my fiction because there are always subconscious issues that creep in--and probably because it's more fun. But I also wonder if this sudden urge for me has to do with the anxiety of beginning a new novel. A memoir already has the plot, after all.

Gina Sorell said...

What about fictionalized memoirs? Where do they fit in?

My real life definitely provides a lot of material for my fiction, and I always worry about my personal essays being accurate enough...was I really wearing high heels? or were they platforms? details that are neither really here nor there, but am afraid that someone will call me on!

I think a fictionalized memoir allows one to share their interpretation of events...is this true?

As for anxiety over starting a new novel...my apartment has never been cleaner :)

Clea Simon said...

Oh, ditto on the new novel anxiety!! I think I am starting one - I'm afraid to even say it - and all I've done today is paperwork, opening the windows, running around and closing them when the latest thunderstorm rolls in, and open them again... aiee!

I am telling myself - and I share with you - the theory that it is necessary to build up this head of nervous energy before really diving in. But it is uncomfortable, isn't it?

Caroline said...

I like that image, the nervous energy buildup, and I think you're right. I'm just at the stage where I've done too much to turn back, but the doubt and anxiety level is making me nuts, hence the whole, well maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should alphabetize all my snow globes or clean my files!

God, three of us starting new projects all at once!

Clea Simon said...

Mercury has gone direct! It's enough to make me believe in astrology.