The Doorway between Memoir and Fiction

As someone who writes both fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve long been interested in the intersections between the two. More specifically (and this is probably more the teacher in me than the writer), I’ve been curious about how using both forms to approach the same material can deepen the writer’s intellectual and emotional responses. To put it simply, what happens to the revision of a piece of fiction when the writer writes about the autobiographical sources that the narrative suggests? Likewise, what happens to a piece of memoir when the writer takes the material and turns it into fiction? I’m interested in the dialogue between the forms and how it affects the revision process.

So when Dinty Moore proposed a team-taught craft class for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference where we’d both be teaching, I jumped at the chance to work with him. Here, then, is the writing activity that we came up with. Our objective was to explore what happens when we invite an exchange between memoir and fiction.

1.         Recall a time when you lied, a time that still makes you feel a little “squirmy” to recall. This shouldn’t be a white lie, but a lie with lasting consequences. My lie would be one I told when I was in first grade. It may have been the first significant lie I ever told. Our teacher had allowed us to take our sack lunches out on the playground. She warned us to be careful with our milk cartons and not to spill them. Well, of course, I spilled mine. When she asked me what happened, I made up a story about an older boy, someone I’d never seen, coming up the road (this was a two-room country school) and kicking over my milk and then leaving. I was a good kid. I knew it was wrong to lie. Why had I been so quick to do it? What does that lie still make me feel uncomfortable when I recall it? When you’ve identified your lie, write a piece of very brief memoir about it. Try to keep it under 750 words. If you have trouble starting, use the line, “I said it happened like this. . . .”

2.         Now revisit the material of the memoir, only this time use a third-person point of view and give yourself permission to stray from the facts. Invent whatever you wish. In other words, write a brief piece of fiction (again, try to keep it under 750 words). Here’s the opening that Dinty suggested for mine: “Tommy’s teacher told the class to take their cartons of Dairyville and sack lunches of baloney and cheese on Sunbeam bread out onto the playground that day because the cafeteria still smelled too much like paint. ‘Don’t spill the milk,’ she warned, just as Tommy cleared the doorway to the outside.”

3.         Has the piece of fiction adjusted your view of the lie that formed the base of the memoir? Dinty suggests that even though the events or dialogue or thoughts that comprised the piece of fiction didn’t really happen, “perhaps they suggest some subconscious truth, a deeper layer or view of the real situation.” Revise your brief memoir using anything that you learned by writing the piece of fiction.

When I wrote my piece of fiction, I added a character that wasn’t there at the time of the actual experience. That character and the way she interacted with the boy, Tommy, ended up showing me that the reason the lie stays with me has something to do with the way I want to see myself, and the way I want others to see me. I’m not sure whether I would have gotten to this without transforming my experience into fiction. For me, the fiction opened some additional doorways to the memoir and ended up creating a more complicated and textured piece.

Since this was the first time, either Dinty or I had used this exercise, we’d love to hear your thoughts. To me, all writing is thinking with language, and writing in other forms can take our work to a fuller rendering.


  1. Teri Costello on September 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I recently reworked some pieces that were turning, for me, into a fact-based diary that was going nowhere. I liked the fabric of them though, the background that I had begun to weave. So I went back and ‘fictionalized’ them…changed the names, made the geographical location murky, wrote them in the third person. In other words, I distanced myself personally from them, and they are flowing much better. I am now able to put words into the characters’ mouths that reveal who they are without getting caught up in trying to remember exactly what they would have said.

    Your story about the lie caught me. In the piece I was struggling with (mightily) last night, I realize now that I was careening toward a lie of my own. As a child, and, could it be, even now?…it was very important to me to maintain the moral high ground, and I was avoiding the lie in the writing, fictionalized as it was. I can generalize from there that if I’m going to fictionalize, I need DO it…and let the evolution begin.

    Though, I have no illusions about never feeling ‘squirmy’ again.

    Thank you so much for your words,
    Teri Costello

    • Lee Martin on September 2, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      Teri, it’s exactly the distancing that we create when turning memoir into fiction that provides a new lens through which to view our own experiences. I love how you start to question your own lie and why it was important for you to maintain the moral high ground and how that might be true for you even today. That’s the sort of question–the thing the writer doesn’t know–that can really drive a piece of memoir. Good luck with you work, and thanks so much for taking the time to leave this comment.

  2. Naomi Kooker on September 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    This is a very exciting topic! Thanks so much, Lee, for sharing this exercise. I can’t wait to make the time to try it out.

    • Lee Martin on September 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks, Naomi. I hope the exercise takes you somewhere productive. Let me know!

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