This discussion refers to the story I published on line on January 20 and January 23.
So, after almost 5,000 words, it is time to get to the point. Is there a clear line between fiction and memoir, and how are writers to know when they are crossing it?
The short answer is that the line may not always be clear, but if you are a writer you will know when you are getting close to it.
An incident can be memoir material if you believe it happened. An event you have always believed to be the truth can be a legitimate part of a memoir if it has been important to you for a long time, even if everybody else in your family swears your memory is 180 degrees and many miles away from theirs. It is legitimate because memoir deals with how you perceive your development and growth, regardless of whether the actions you recall were hatched in your mind and have never had any other reality.
In other words, memoir is a psychological and perceptual phenomenon as much as a literary one. The key is what you sincerely believe and your ability to be honest with yourself first. What you owe your readers comes later.
My sister believes I once embarrassed her by telling her the moon was made of cheese. She proudly told her class and had to face their ridicule. She also believes one of our brothers told her the long blonde locks of her favorite doll’s hair would grow back if she cut it off. He and I do not share these memories, but they have mattered to her for more than half a century. They could be part of her memoir if she wrote one, but my brother and I would have to stray into fiction to write about them. They are simply not part of our memory.
To repeat, the line between memoir and fiction is unclear, and it is not the nature of an incident that determines where the line sits. What matters is whether the story is honestly remembered or whether it is a flight of fancy.
I have said that I lived through most of the incidents in “He that filches my good name.” The one or two of them that appear in my memoir are mentioned only in passing. And the reason is simple. This story relates the incidents to each other that were not related when they happened. My ordering of the events, my bringing the people together, my speculation about the motivation of the actual shammes all make for a more cohesive story than anything I could have said about the effect of any of them on me when they happened.
It is difficult to think of how memoir could have presented these events effectively. There are too many unknowns. In fact, it is hard to imagine a reason for using these incidents in a memoir at all. What is described in the first half of this story would have been too distracting as part of my personal memoir. To suggest that all the early background material might fit into a memoir from the perspective of the shammes carries us off the point altogether. I am discussing what would have to be a memoir from my point of view (that is, that of the narrator), or no memoir at all. I am the writer.
I do not mean to suggest that stories in a memoir cannot begin with background material. My Thunder Bay chapter opens with three paragraphs describing the social environment that confronted me when I moved to Canada, including these details:
Although I had lived most of my life within ten miles of the international border, it surprised me to find how many everyday differences existed in Canada – or was it just in that backwater north of Lake Superior – such as cars pulling over to the side of the road and stopping out of respect when a funeral passed. And a few blocks from home there was a functioning public water pump. People shopped at small corner stores. The biggest department store chain in Canada had only a small catalogue outlet downtown, where the standard response to requests for service was the question “Where do you think we are – Toronto?”
There are many reasons why “He that filches my good name” must be fiction and not memoir. The doubtful credibility of the shammes and the mystery of the narrator’s past collide in this story as they never could in memoir. In the end it is as fiction readers that we share the confusion of the narrator, unsure of what he knows for certain. And we are willing to ride back and forth in time in this story as we might not have been in a memoir.
As a memoirist you write a story that evolves from your vision of the past, a story that corresponds to some remembered event or pattern of events. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Sometimes it is no more than the working out of an idea, the exploration of a mystery, the description of somebody who passed by you on the road. Whether it is memoir or fiction does not depend on the ingredients. It depends on whether it reflects your memory entirely or springs out of your imagination.