Memoir is hot these days. Michelle Obama’s Belonging is at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Educated, a memoir written by Tara Westover, follows close behind. Last month, I sat in on a memoir writing class. Not because I want to write my life’s story but to cheer on the teacher, Ellen Keith, a fellow faculty member at the International Writers’ Collective.
Memoir belongs to the genre of creative nonfiction, a broad tent that holds many circus animals: personal essay, travel narrative, memoir, blog, and autobiography. Unlike autobiography, which generally spans an entire lifetime, memoir is more thematic, focusing on a particular phase. It uses the same building blocks as fiction: a strong narrative voice and a story told in scenes.
It made me wonder: where does memoir end and fiction begin? Then Ellen distracted me with a hermit crab exercise.
Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe. Hermit crabs are creatures born without their own shells to protect them; they need to find empty shells to inhabitBrenda Miller, “The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study,” Brevity, Jan. 7, 2017
Hermit crabs exist in fiction, too. Think of Lydia Davis and her “Letters“. I wrote a hermit crab piece that day in Ellen’s class and was pleased with it. But when I got home, I took another look. Had I written a work of fiction or nonfiction?
Autofiction is a term coined in 1977 by Serge Dubrowsky. He was trying to distinguish his novel Fils from autobiography, which in his mind was a genre reserved for the Very Important. Nowadays, the term is applied to
contemporary authors—Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among others—whose “reality effects” create a strong sense of immediacy on the page, so that very little seems to separate the reader from the writer’s experience.David Wallace, “‘Liveblog’ and the Limits of Autofiction,” The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2018
In other words, the author is drawing from his own life, using recognizably autobiographical details, blurring the distinction between writer, narrator, and character. The concept is not at all new.
why do we need a unique term for this movement in contemporary literature, if authors have always used their own lives as inspiration for their work?Rebecca van Laer, “How We Read Autofiction”, Ploughshares, July 1, 2018
Is It True?
If anything, a label like autofiction encourages readers to lift the veil. Is this story true? Which character are you? If you’re Jamie Quatro, your readers want to know what your husband thinks of your illicit sex stories. That is to say, did you do any of that stuff? My response to all that is so what? In fiction, you don’t get extra points for truth.
But in nonfiction, truth is the whole ball of wax. You don’t get to put words into a source’s mouth, create composite characters or compress multiple interviews into one efficient chat. You can’t make it up.
So I look again at my little hermit crab and I’m still not so sure which species it is. My friend, the poet, asks what difference does it make? I cite the submission guidelines used by literary journals; you can only tick one box, fiction or nonfiction. The pragmatic poet says, submit it as both and see which one gets accepted.
Still, I demur. I’ve got the skeleton on paper. Do I now add a fancy dress, top hat, and cowboy boots? Or do I stare into the mirror and try to conjure up my youthful self?
Memory is a slippery substance. What we remember may be the whole truth, a half-truth, or an utter lie. We often remember the telling of a memory better than the event itself. Even if I wanted to, it’s not so easy to recall events that took place 2 or 12 or 20 years ago.
It’s far easier to embellish as a novelist would. To put people in the room who were never there or words in their mouth that come out of your own. But that’s not how nonfiction works.
factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper.John McPhee, “Structure,” The New Yorker, Jan. 14, 2013
I heed McPhee’s advice. I work with what I have and not what I want. At the same time, the novelist in me demands scenes and details: the color of his eyes and the taste of her chewing gum. My characterization must be accurate and alive. I want the reader to be moved, not because my work is true to my life, but because it could also be true to his.
Dina Nayeri is the author of Refuge, a novel with visible ties to Nayeri’s own life. It’s the story of an Iranian girl who escapes to America, leaving her father behind in Iran. Nayeri acknowledges that her protagonist is loosely based on her father, just as she admits to examining her mother regularly in fiction and essay.
I love to write auto-fiction: it is, I believe, the purest, most powerful way to tell an honest story.Dina Nayeri, “On Lying and Auto-fiction”, Read It Forward
Truth, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Nayeri’s father can accept the idea that his truth may differ from his daughter’s. To Nayeri’s mother, on the other hand, there can only be facts and lies. Nayeri makes no apology though she does acknowledge her debt.
I take too much from my parents.Idem
Memoir and autofiction have in common the power to hurt those we love. There’s a reason why most novels open with the disingenuous disclaimer.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Most of us don’t write with the intent to wound. Most of us, like Nayeri, are simply trying to solve the puzzle of our own life.
My little hermit crab might be a work of autofiction or it may be a bit of memoir. It doesn’t matter. I’m mining my life in service of a larger truth. If my hermit crab piece ever gets published I’ll let you know which shell it fell into.