From fiction to memoir

For writers, the choice of what type of book to write varies from fiction, which includes, among others, mystery, romance, or historical novels, to non-fiction, with memoirs sitting close to but seldom at the top of the list. To write a successful book in a fiction genre, an author must be able to speak through his characters, conveying what they see and feel with realism, yet choosing to reveal only what fits the plot or a character’s journey. “My hero or heroine would never say or do that” is a line we often hear. What the statement tells us is that the author is controlling the way the character conducts himself on the page. In a memoir, on the other hand, the author has no choice but to shed the clothes of pride, and show the good, the bad and the ugly about himself and his world. No editing of the author’s behavior comes into play. As one of my readers, Philip, aptly put it, a memoir is a “no gloves” kind of writing. It can bring calluses to the hands and soul. If so, why write a memoir?

In my case, I rejected the idea for the longest time. I wanted to write a novel instead, using events of my past, but fictionalizing the story and making my alter-ego a tall Latin hunk with dark wavy hair and a perennial 5-o’clock shadow, everything I am not. Little by little, however, I was pushed toward writing a memoir. People showed more interest in my participation in the personal events I talked to them about than in some fictional character’s reaction to them. Still, I was not convinced. To prepare myself for the kind of writing I thought I would do, I joined an online class on “Descriptive Writing.” After our first assignment, the critique I received from the group’s moderator and teacher was “You should write a memoir.”

There goes my Latin hunk, I thought.  But, I couldn’t ignore the calling anymore.

To anchor myself in the genre, I decided to re- read Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes; afterwards, my hesitation about writing a memoir came back times ten. How could I compete with this magnificent storyteller? In my previous blog I asked my readers for their impressions on his memoir. A response from Alia mentions “vivid descriptions of both the utter poverty, yet sheer joy of his childhood in Ireland.” Her comments reflected my own visceral reaction to the work on my second reading. The theme of hunger, of physical depravation sang an aria of great emotional power. But what moved me  most was the humor interwoven throughout the melodic angst, a true touch of genius.

A memoir does not have to unfold in chronological order as long as the various anecdotes reflect a unifying theme, which McCourt’s work did. As I considered my own memoir, I realized three things: 1) I knew the events I wanted to write about although not precisely in what order 2) I had no theme—in fact it was not until a third of the way into the book that one emerged; and 3) I knew that attempting an outline of the whole book first would be tantamount to never writing the memoir.

So, what did I do? Tune in to my next blog to learn how I handled both my strengths and limitations and how I developed my own game plan for working on the manuscript.

6 thoughts on “From fiction to memoir

  1. A lifetime of hope, love and dreams should be shared with the world. You have always been an inspiration and I can hardly wait for your book to be published. I know I will learn things about you that I never new before.
    With love, Mary

  2. My mother hand wrote her memoirs for each of us children and they are a treasured item. Your memoirs will reach the world and inspire everyone who reads them. I look forward to the publishing and your first book signing. You are a man of courage and strength and I admire you for that.

  3. Your next book could easily be documenting the process of writing the first one! Can’t wait to read your memoir.

  4. The priveledge of knowing more of your story will surely inspire. Again. And again. I look forward to what is to come, having already been awestruck by what has transpired in your life’s journey, as I have had the opportunity to be a voyour, looking in from the outside with an occasional glance from the second row.

  5. Speaking or writing strictly as a novice, your writing makes me want to review my American Thought and Language class at Michigan State University and reread 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, including all the various versions. Lorenzo, I can say I am very proud to know you.

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