Of course you say, “Thank you very much for that insight,” because you’re polite and the person who’s suggesting this is undoubtedly an agent or an editor who doesn’t really understand the soul-power of memoir or what draws writers to it.
Inside you may be thinking, Hell, no! Or worse, Maybe she’s right. That would be easier, after all.
Whether you’re an aspiring memoirist, have a memoir-in-progress, or have one or a few published memoirs to your credit, you are in serious danger of being negatively influenced by other people’s impressions of you and your work as a consequence of being a writer of memoir.
In my opinion, telling a memoirist to fictionalize their work is an act of dream-crushing. In fact, I personally tend to try to persuade memoirists who want to publish under a pen name to publish under their real name. My general feeling about publishing is that it’s never going to make as big a splash as you think it’s going to make. People envision themselves as future Augusten Burroughses, family coming out of the woodwork to dispute their version of events, or Cheryl Strayeds, world-famous and in the limelight.
Most memoirists I know who publish their work to more modest results are happy that they kept intact certain parts of their story that they considered cutting during fearful moments. I’ve never met any memoirist who wished they had left something out. It’s always the reverse. Published memoirists have often confessed to me wishing they had the courage to write the hard truth, the thing they feared would get them excommunicated from their family-of-origin, or cut off from a friend. But sometimes it’s this regret that leads to second memoirs.
Three times recently I’ve been to memoir events in which a panelist suggested a writer fictionalize their memoir. The experts giving this advice were an agent, an author(!), and an editor, respectively. In the first case, a woman stood during Q&A to share her story of domestic violence—and her fear of retaliation by her ex-husband. The agent was flippant, seeming to try to get the woman to stop talking. It was clear he didn’t care about her story, and thought no one else would either. But, of course, that was his projection, and a market for domestic abuse memoirs exists, and important stories abound. In the second case, the author on the panel was a celebrity, so I think she didn’t get it. In my experience authors rarely tell other authors to fictionalize their work. A woman in the audience stood up to talk about her mother’s mental illness, and her fear of alienating her whole family, to which the celebrity author said, “So fictionalize it!” Again, flippant. In the third case, an editor didn’t know how to deal with the question of ethics when it came to a therapist writing about her clients. There’s a simple solution here—it’s called writing composite characters—but the editor also said, “Well, you can always fictionalize it.” A sorry, uninspired answer.
In my experience there are very few memoirists who want to fictionalize their stories. If they did, they would be attending fiction panels, not memoir panels. Or they might be asking a question like, “Do you think I should fictionalize my book?” Instead these people are typically hemming and hawing because they’re scared—of the fallout, of the legal consequences, of exposure. These are all very normal concerns for memoirists, and you’re not alone if these terrifying questions come up. But while you’re in the process of writing your memoir, you’re future-tripping when you do this. Stop. Take a deep breath. Write the story you know. Write the story you lived. You can figure out what you’re going to get rid of later. There is abundant time for cutting during the revision process. You can create your composites later too. And there’s such a thing in memoir as a disclaimer, in which you exonerate yourself from the “wrong-doing” of creative writing by telling people you’re doing it.
In the memoir classes I co-teach with Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers, we always tell our students that it’s the emotional truth that matters. What this means is that the details can be fudged or recreated here and there as long as the essence of what really happened is there on the page. In our new anthology, The Magic of Memoir, many of the contributors write about their struggles with truth and memory—so I know what a potent topic it is. Emotional truth is at stake when it comes to the advice to fictionalize too. Memoirists write memoir because they’re invested in truth. They are excavating their lived experiences, bleeding on the page, and exposing their lived experience for future readers. There is something so profound—and undercelebrated—about this. Fiction requires much of its writers, no doubt, but it is not the same. The end product, too, is not the same. To publish your true story is an act of heroism, a journey of the soul, and an experience unlike any other. Unlike novel writing, and not to be minimized or flippantly disregarded. Stand strong in the face of these kinds of comments. I have to believe they know not the impact of their words.