Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction?

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

July 13, 2018

By Irene Waters

Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?

For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.

There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.

Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.

We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.

Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.

When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.

If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.

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80 Comments

  1. denmaniacs4

    I rarely write “memoir.” What I find myself doing quite often is taking bits and pieces of my memory and infusing it with a more punctuating prose, or poesy. Though I believe I am a truth teller, I am also a revisionist…hopefully retaining strong elements of “truth” whilst coupling the whole rigmarole with an interesting narrative.

    Nevertheless, I do love others truer memoirs.

    • Charli Mills

      Bill, I definitely find your writing to have the quality of a truth teller. Interesting, how we can find ways to the truth, both through one’s own memories or by revising prose to show the truth.

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I am not sure what will come of this prompt but something. (Eventually, busy weekend) This is a thought provoking series. And bicycles! I can remember and go on at length about every single bike I have known and owned since the big red trike when I was four. The most I ever had in possession at one time was seven (or maybe eight). I have trimmed the stable to 5 now, not including the trikkes (Not a typo, google it) and the unicycle. (That idea not going so well; yet)

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I remember you finding your unicycle at the tip. Perhaps its early days yet. You sound as though you are a committed rider – I’d love to know what prompted the multiple bikes in the stable. You must have a good core D. if you ride those trikkes. I had to google it as suggested but I have seen them ridden here – I have always looked in admiration of the girls figures as they passed.

    • Charli Mills

      If you ever want to travel with any of your stable I have suggestions, D.! There are muddy trails down Brockaway Mountain over Copper Harbor and wilderness bike trails in Zion. I prefer horses and Jeeps, but recall fond memories of bikes, too. A unicycle! I rode one — once. That wheel took off behind me and my face met the pavement. May you have more successful yets in your future.

  3. Miriam Hurdle

    Hi, Irene, the identity in a memoir is a thought-provoking issue. In our poetry class yesterday, we read our poems entitled “I Am From…” Different member wrote from different angles. Some wrote about the locations they have been since birth. Some wrote about the family tradition they were brought up and transitioning to their own tradition in the present. Some wrote about the social changes they’ve been through. Some wrote about the emphasis of the church from past to present.

    It was so interesting that one member recommended that we polish our “I Am From…” and compile them as our anthology.

    One of my former supervisors said, after her dad retired, he was so depressed and withdrawn because he felt like he lost his identity. He was proud of what he did when working. He associated his talent and mental capacity as his identity. When he stayed home, he felt like being nobody.

    As you mentioned, the reader may like the identity of the memoirist in the first book. When the memoirist goes through changes and has a different perception of his/her journey, the readers may not follow the change of image.

    On June 5, 2004, President Ronald Reagan died after having suffered from 10 year’s Alzheimer’s disease. He had a seven-day state funeral from California to Washington D.C. His casket was carried by a horse-drawn hearse. That was the only state funeral I have seen in my lifetime. I bet this would be a big part of Reagan’s offsprings memoirs.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      That sounds like a great idea to make them into an anthology. We see all those different angles with the flash prompt each week. It is one thing that I love about tackling these types of prompts – 99 words or I am from _ is seeing the creative ways that people approach the subject. Some from totally left field. I’d say those stories are well worth reading.

      I think a lot of retired people, men in particular, miss being able to say I am ….. It is the same that a lot of women used to be seen as their husband’s appendage and although some protested it others saw it as valuable. I personally think these kinds of thing give us a traceable identity but do little for who we really are.

      Yes it is a real problem for those who write sequel memoirs and has to be taken into account when it comes to marketing.

      Such a hard illness Alzheimer’s for both sufferer and those that love the person. I’m sure Reagan was no different – just shows that we can be so far removed and yet it doesn’t isolate us from the human experiences. I wonder if Reagan’s children will write a memoir. Certainly there have been biographies written.

    • Charli Mills

      My favorite part of the weekly challenge is bringing together the diverse collection from such diverse perspectives. I can imagine how powerful a collection based on transitions could be. Identity is something that evolves, but for many people, it’s been static — through a long-held job, role or belief. When circumstances change it can be hard for someone who is not used to change to adapt. I like evolving, pushing into discovering who I am in the world.

      Wow — I’ve never seen a state funeral. That must have been a memorable sight. I do think two of Ronald Reagan’s children wrote memoirs. Something to look up!

      • Miriam Hurdle

        Charli, It’s good that you like to evolve and discover your full potential.
        When I was in Hong Kong, I had no problem with jobs. Hong Kong is a small world, I was recruited for the three jobs before coming to the US ages ago.
        In the US system, seniority, retirement benefits, and other factors don’t encourage people to leave their jobs. After a person teaches in a school district for more than 15 years, it’s hard to even move to another district because some districts only give up to 10 years credit as local retirement benefit. I ended up staying in the same district for 25 years. Well, at least I taught for 15 years and was administrator for 10, so I kind of pushed myself a little.

  4. Annecdotist

    Interesting post as ever, Irene, and provoked some useful thoughts for me in anticipation of my forthcoming short story anthology of stories about identity.
    I must ask – perhaps repeating myself from previous conversations – about your statement that memoir gives us our identity. Do you mean that without memoir we don’t have an identity or is it that memoir is one of the things that gives us identity? Or is your concept of memoir much wider than creative non-fiction to embrace any of the stories we tell about ourselves and are told about us?
    I can agree that our stories help us identify who we are. But which comes first, the identity or the story about it? I think about it as an interactive process between identity and story which is continually evolving.
    And what’s your view on the stories we don’t tell? In my opinion, the stories we tell only to ourselves are part of who we are. Then I believe there are the unconscious stories, scripts etc that we don’t articulate even to ourselves, but nevertheless impact on both our behaviour and how we think about ourselves.
    It’s fascinating also how those false memories are shaped by and further shape our identities. Sometimes people develop a false self of false identity which is nevertheless an honest view of themselves at that particular point in time. This might arise through stories imposed by others and/or a “real” self that feels too fragile, especially for those with marginalised identities.
    Lots to psychologise and philosophise about but for writers, of memoir or fiction, it all comes down to telling the stories that people will want to read.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Hi Anne, I lost my initial reply so hopefully this one will make it. Thank you for reading again and I’m glad you found it interesting. You, as usual, have made me think.
      Memoir is one of the things which gives us identity. We have our researchable identity available to all via birth certificates, newspaper articles, voting registers etc. This part of identity we never lose as we never lose our race, nationality etc. This to me is the sterile part of identity. The other part is how others see us and this is determined by the stories we tell of ourselves and how our actions are seen. My concept of memoir is much broader than just the literary genre. This may be right or wrong but nowadays memoir not only refers to the written word but to aural stories. I take it to include stories you tell to friends and other people although it could be argued that these should be termed life stories rather than memoir. I see little difference in the definition. I follow a philosophy that telling these stories are as important as the maintenance of pH, and temperature. They are fundamental to being human and having an identity. Absolutely these stories evolve and change over time. I believe that we also stop telling stories as we ourselves change over time. The stories of our teens may now be embarrassing to admit to, may put us in a light that would not make us look good and make not only others think less of us but also ourselves. This may be conscious or unconscious but I think we all do it.
      The stories that we don’t tell I believe are because we don’t want these stories to define us as people. Whether we tell them or not they will have contributed to our present day character and will have impacted on the stories we do tell because they have had a part in making us who we are. Psychological traumas and untold stories is another subject and often telling these stories even to the self, or counsellor will have a positive impact. Paul John Eakin wrote “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others
      as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”
      I have sometimes fantasised about making a fictional life for myself. I could give myself children and grandchildren and be able to join in an ever enlarging part of the lives of those around me. Sometimes I have been tempted to do it. I don’t only because I believe in truth and honesty. It would be so easy to be someone that you aren’t and you would assume that identity by the stories you tell.
      False memories are much more common that we think. Humans are hardwired for story and where there are gaps we fill them unknowningly with what is the most probable scenario. Oliver Sachs tells of a memory he had during the war. The incident happened. He described it perfectly. The problem was that he was not in London at the time it happened. He honestly believed he was. He believed he was part of it and no physical proof could take away his memories. They were true to him and would definitely have had an impact on him as a person.
      You are right Anne. It does all come down to writing the stories that people want to read.

      • Annecdotist

        Thanks for clarifying, Irene. Interesting that you take such a wide interpretation for memoir and I’m not sure why that would be. Also I think we differ – and will continue to do so – on the stories we don’t share. I totally accept my private stories as part of who I am – although this was a difficult place to get to – and my experience of sharing it, apart from with a therapist, actually weakens that.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I totally agree Anne that there are stories that should never be told, some that should be told only to select people and only a small number that should be made public. All our stories make up the person that we are whether we tell them or not.
        I take such a wide view I guess because the definition of memoir is telling well, (by the use of fiction techniques) the memory of a part of one’s life truthfully. Storytelling I believe is something that we all do. Most do it aurally. On our radio one of the most popular programmes is compered by Richard Fidler and features aural memoir.
        But this is all theory and when it boils down to it, writing memoir or fiction is done because you believe you have a story to tell and we all hope we do it well whatever the genre.

    • Charli Mills

      Anne, and Irene, your discussion has me thinking about the power of stories in our lives. I often use the phrase “we are hardwired for stories” when I teach about crafting brand stories. Of course, being a story-teller, stories feel like a part of my DNA. Then there are the narratives we tell ourselves, the stories that shape who we are, or who we think we are. But which comes first? Who we think we are or what narrative we use to describe ourselves and our experiences? Writing, in general, is an act of self-discovery whether memoir or fiction. I don’t think you can write deep and not encounter self. It feels like seeking. Which reminds me of a certain story structure… Anne and I have been discussing and pondering the hero’s journey. I think it could be better labeled the journey of self. If we are discovering, do the stories help us with discovery or cover up what we don’t want to include? What gives us identify — the stories we tell or hide? So much to consider.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        You are right Charli. There are so many things to consider but I do believe that our stories tell of our identity – which comes first – I believe the stories do and until we have our own stories we use the stories that our parents have given us but it is like the chicken and the egg so who knows for sure. We all know that our stories matter. I like you thought about renaming the heroes journey to the journey of self. I am giving a talk on the heroes journey and that is exactly what I have done.

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        I found more of this conversation in the book I just started reading, Beyond Belief; The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagel’s study of the versions and interpretations of that popular hero’s journey tale, you know, the Jesus story. (The fatal, not fetal tale, Easter, not Christmas) The stories, the gospels, became, in Pagel’s words, “not simply a narrative of past events but a story through which (his followers) could interpret their own struggles, their victories, their sufferings and their hopes” and Mark’s gospel “offers the script, so to speak, for the drama that his followers are to live out”.
        Pagel describes her turning to her church because, “The drama being played out there ‘spoke to my condition,’ as it has to that of millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while- paradoxically-nurturing hope.”
        Further on she states that “What sustained many Christians, even more than belief, were stories” and that the suppressed stories, the heretical, hidden gospels show Christian writers who saw themselves “not so much as *believers* but as *seekers*.
        I’ve an afternoon of reading ahead of me to learn more about how denouncing Thomas’s heretic gospel and enshrining others’ in the New Testament “shaped-and inevitably limited- what would become Western Christianity”.
        But I felt this was a pretty good definition and interpretation of ‘story’ and of ‘memoir’, or personal stories, however one wishes to define the terms. All stories are suspect in what gets presented and what gets withheld in that they are used to write the script for present and future identity. And yes, Boss, some stories are a seeking and self-discovery, but even the greatest story ever told can get corrupted by its readers’ interpretations. (Tricky thing, this reading and writing)

      • Charli Mills

        This topic expands and compresses just as our lives do with the broad and specific stories we tell. The details we leave out or re-shape. The seeking, hiding, fearing and hoping we all do bound up in stories. And memories are expressed through how we tell them because of how we feel or felt or thought we did. We are living books. When you take it to the Christian perspective it illuminates, “In the beginning, there was the word.” Thank you for sharing this deep and profound work. May you read, ponder upon a pond and then relate your stories to us.

  5. robbiesinspiration

    When I first started writing, Irene, it was my Sir Choc books which are pure fantasy. I think Sir Choc and Lady Sweet live in the world children would like to live in where everyone is nice, every problem is happily resolved and you can eat anything. I moved on to Silly Willy which has a lot of memoir in it and then I started writing my Mom’s memoir. From that I have leaped to a YA ghost story. I do believe there is a lot of me [and my family] in all my writing. A lot of what features there is influenced by what I like and what I believe in. A great post.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks Robbie. Yes I think we all take bits of our lives and put them into characters. That is what makes books believable. Have you published your Mum’s memoir?

      • robbiecheadle

        Hi Irene, not yet. I have just sent the final edits through to my publisher. It will be next month [August] I think.

    • Miriam Hurdle

      I agree with you, Robbie. When I write fiction, I can’t write from a vacuum. I have to latch on some of my experience, my observation, and then add some imagination to it. One of the classes I went to in the recent Writers Conference talked about how to make fictional stories real or have a real conversation in fiction. In order to make it real, we would tap on our memories and observation. I can see that you’re doing a lot of them already.

      • robbiecheadle

        Thank you, Miriam. I am trying to do that and to include dialogue and active voice too.

      • Miriam Hurdle

        You’re welcome, Robbie. Yes, that’s what we talked about in the writers conference.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Totally agree Miriam. I think all writers use what they have heard or overheard as material. Our characters have to be believable even if the story is set in a different world or fantasy and the only way to make them real is by observation.

      • Miriam Hurdle

        It’s very true, Irene. When I took the Children’s Literacy Writing Course, they recommend the students to volunteer to work with children so they could observe the real interaction. It just happened that I was teaching.

      • Miriam Hurdle

        🙂 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Robbie, your transition through writing feels like exploration of your world. I love that beyond memoir you found something supernatural. I think we all put something of ourselves — whether we intend to or not — in what we write or the stories we share with others.

      • robbiecheadle

        It must be that way I think, Charli. What we write is an extension of our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

  6. Jules

    I wonder does memoir become diluted when we take and change the names to protect the innocent in a fiction piece. There are so many ‘fiction’ pieces that have ‘flashes’ of truth. But because those pieces are not claimed as memoir are they any less valuable to the person who wrote them?

    Even bits of poetic verse have bits of memoir when recalling even the briefest of moments. Like describing who raided the bird feeder on a particular spring morning.

    It is very interesting that we can make false memories. How often have we been told by other family members that an incident that we believe happened one way, they claim happened differently or even not at all.

    How we perceive ourselves by how others define us is also interesting. The child who is told they are cute or won’t amount to much… (for what ever reasons) sometimes fills that outcome because they have only ever seen themselves in that light. So when they do change or brake the mold – and become the swan, they deserve what ever accolades that are bestowed.

    I’ll have to think about bikes… as I didn’t learn to ride until I was a teenager.
    And didn’t own one until an adult…

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I always swore that I would never change names of people in memoir as it seems a sign of disrespect to me. Most people like being mentioned however I have come to realise that if you can’t ask the person then perhaps it is better to change their name. For me these characters are usually minor players in the memoir but rather than find them all (probably impossible) it is easier to change their name.
      Are they less valuable to the writer – I think they are but there are probably others that would argue that point. I think we all use what we know, those around us and ourselves when we write other than memoir but these are usually very different to what we would write as memoir. They do however make our work ring true.
      We all bring our own world views to our memories and as such I don’t think that any event is ever seen the same way by those observing it. If eg witnesses to a car accident – if they have the same story it is assumed that they have colluded on the story to be told. False memories are more remembering an event as real but in reality the event either happened and you weren’t present or the event never happened at all. A lot of memory is made up as we are hardwired for story and we will fill the gaps with a realistic most probable scenario.
      Yes we tend to fulfil prophecies and lucky for some that they can break away.
      Any bike memories welcome. I didn’t have a lot to do with bikes as a child either.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Irene and Jules, pitching in here about the issue of changing names. Like you Irene, I also swore I wouldn’t change any names, and like you also Jules, I felt that by doing so, diluted their character. The main characters have their real names, but there are some I felt I needed to change because my story goes a long way back and those people I have either not had any contact with for over 30 years, don’t know where they live or even if they are still alive. The main characters I have kept the same. But using made up names stifled my writing. So I went back to their real names and will change them when it’s finished, and use a disclaimer. Is that okay to do Irene? I don’t know another way around it…

      • Charli Mills

        I wouldn’t have thought of the names making such a difference, but I can see now that you’ve explained how it’s factored into your writing process, Sherri. Good question.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Me neither Charli. It was something I didn’t expect!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Sherri I totally agree. I had used all real names and when I realised that I couldn’t contact the people concerned for one reason or another I changed some of the names. I am in two minds about it as it would be very easy to find out who they are so should I respect them (even though I can’t ask them) by letting them own their own life or should I change the name. I ended up changing the names of the minor people and leaving all the major players with their own names. Like you I had to write it with their real names as they no longer felt real to me with the names I ended up giving them so I changed them all at the end. My fear is that I have missed one or two of them when I did it. So in answer to your question I think it is perfectly fine to do.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Thank you so much for this Irene, really appreicate your clarity on this tricky question. You have validated my decision to change some of the names, while writing with their real names through the process. I know what you mean about missing some, though. I will need to be very careful about that! 🙂 <3

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        My book is with the publisher now with only the major characters keeping their true names. I was happy with that but this week I’ve started to have second thoughts on the subject. It seems as though I have taken their story away from them and given it to someone else. If it goes further I will ask the publisher what they think. As you say it is a tricky one.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Do keep me posted, Irene. It is a trick one indeed. Since I am still on my rewrites and using all real names at the moment, I have yet to get to that same point as you are now. I will definitely be thinking more about this as I get nearer to completing my final draft. Must discuss – and everything crossed for you!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Thanks Sherri. You’ll be one of the first to know. Names is a hard one and I move backwards and forwards in my thoughts as to what is the right thing to do. I am really seriously considering going back to giving my people their correct names apart from a couple.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Big smile 😀 <3 😀

    • Charli Mills

      Interesting thoughts, Jules. I prefer the freedom of fiction to build on a memory or something I encountered. It’s like seeing the external but following it to an internal process. I think people might have a hard time feeling comfortable with imagination — is it untrue or somehow less than a memory? I liked what Bill pointed out in his comment about being a truth seeker. He does that through fiction. And sometimes memory can only go so far as a personal perspective.

      Irene’s explanation of false memories actually helps me understand what the Hub is doing where he has gaps in his memory — he fills in with what seems likely. It’s unsettling to me because I know some of these memories are definitely false, but he feels they aren’t and then I begin to doubt myself. Some people are in denial though. I wonder if strong denial can create false memories?

      • Jules

        You remind me of the book ‘Sybil’ – while that dealt with a person with multiple personalities it wasn’t until the person ‘Sybil’ actually accepted some of the other ‘selves’ that she was able to be more ‘whole’ – as some of the memories were buried deep in the splits for safety. But again, who is to say which of those selves had the truest or most (if any) made up memories in order for the ‘body’ to survive? So maybe it is possible for a person who wants to forget to create a false memory in order for self preservation.

      • Charli Mills

        Shakespeare once wrote about the tangled webs we weave — maybe he meant memories more than lives and lies!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Every single one of us will have a different memory of an event because we take in different elements of the experience and see it from our own perspective. Roger does what Todd does also. I know he’s got it wrong and I used to correct him but now I say to myself does it really matter that his memory is different to mine, it is his memory after all and the fine detail doesn’t take away from the big picture memory. I find it much more difficult with my mother who is just starting to lose her memory because I desperately want her to recall things she shouldn’t have forgotten.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Jules I think you could be quite right. I think of people who have had to become other people (witness protection programmes and the like) – I bet they do become another person totally and to be safe they have to create false memories which in time become real.
        It is indeed a tangled web we weave.

      • Charli Mills

        When my friend Kate was living with her parents (her dad had Alzheimer’s and her mother had dementia) she said she often felt like she was going crazy. She knew they were mixed up with their memories but their shifting stories made her feel doubtful of her own. I can feel like that with Todd, but like you, I let it go. If it’s important, I’ll speak up to clarify a situation.

  7. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    You really made me think with this post. For many years, I couldn’t talk at all about myself because the history was so painful that it frightened me. When finally confronted it, I found it changed, not because of the incidents, but because of my understanding of the incidents and the history that was their inception.

    You mention at the very end of this article how those with dementia have lost their memories. My mother suffered Alzheimer’s disease the last 18 years of her life. I watched in dismay and terror as part of her dissloved until none of her memories remained. Since she couldn’t remember anything or anyone from her past, she was unable to anticipate any kind of future. Alezheimer’s is awful on so many levels but it’s the disappearance of memory that is most horrible to witness. My mom’s final memoir could be no more than the pain or hunger or happiness she felt at the moment, gone just seconds later.

    • Charli Mills

      What a profound shift you experienced, Sharon, through your understanding. It must have taken courage to confront. And to watch your mother lose her memories. Thank you for sharing!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thank you for sharing Sharon. I’m glad you found confronting your history and that it was the understanding you gained that gave you a positive change.
      I am just at the start of the journey you went through with your Mum Sharon and it is hard, really hard coping with the memory loss. I am gaining some understanding of the journey you have been on over the past eighteen years.

  8. Jennie

    I am in the process of writing a memoir on my blog, but I have made it specific to one area, quilting over the years in my classroom. I thought this would simply be a story with a few chapters, but it has become far more. A memoir dives deep into your heart, or soul. Perhaps a piece of advice for others would be to narrow the focus initially so the writing can do the expanding. Make sense? I’m writing part 5, and it keeps growing.

    • Charli Mills

      Jennie, I love your description of your memoir as “quilting over the years.” In fiction writing, I like to create a patchwork of scenes to explore and do that deep dive. It makes sense to allow for the writing to grow from a small focal point rather than casting a broad net early on. Thanks for that insight!

      • Jennie

        I’m so glad you liked the description, Charli. I think we are on the same wavelength, growing writing from a small focal point. Although, an opening sentence or prologue that casts a big net can pull the reader in- pun intended!

      • Charli Mills

        Ha! Cheers to casting the biggest net we can even if we weave it small bit by bit!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      You have captured the essence of memoir in your observations and I agree that a narrow focus is definitely the way to go. Looking forward to visiting you and reading your memoir that keeps growing.

      • Jennie

        Thank you, Irene.

  9. Sherri Matthews

    Hi Irene, I wish I had time to comment more on the, as always, great discussion your fascinating memoir post has generated. I had not thought about the different ways we might read the same memorist until now. For instance, I absolutely loved Angelea’s Ashes by McCourt, but not as keen on ‘Tis, strangely. You bring up such an important facet of memoir writing with identity. And I think that is the whole point of memoir: we seek to write the true story as we experienced it and from our unique perspectives and memories, constantly challenged to write the truth of it, whether or not it puts us in a good or bad light. This is the crux of what a memoir should be, to me, setting it apart as the genre it is, and why it can be so difficult to write. We go deeper and deeper and often find that the story we thought we were writing is actually quite different. It is much easier to set up false identities these days with social media. We can portray ourselves in whatever light we choose. We can look great, smile and make jokes, but what really lies behind the photographs? Memoir forces us to look behind the smiles and find the real story. Which of course, is lost so tragically with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But through the written word, the story lives on. Wonderful post Irene, thank you for sharing so generously your knowledge and expertise. I look forward to taking part in ‘Bicycles’ this month! A fun prompt! <3

    • Charli Mills

      Sherri, I think fiction writing, in this sense, is similar. The deeper we go, the more different the story becomes. However, in memoir, that’s probably a whole different experience because the depths belong to one’s memory, but also the processing of those memories. I feel frustrated at the moment with MOD because I feel I lost the story. Much of it has to do with me, that I’ve evolved since I started writing it. I’m not sure how to sort that out other than to keep pushing into it. Thank you for sharing your insights! <3

      • Sherri Matthews

        And again, we share a very similar process Charli. I am so sorry to hear of your frustration with MOD at the moment. But…I relate so well, for as you know, I’ve gone through so much of that with my memoir. And as with you, a lot of that has been because of the way the story, my writing and my life changes have evolved through these past 4 – 5 years. Memoir or fiction, finding a way through that is very tough and pushing into it might always be the best way, at first. I’ve found those long periods of what we once called procrastination, – but now know as processing – although often enforced, hence adding to our frustration, have actually helped more than we realise at the time. We need that space, that time away. We need to decipher that evolution and find a different way to apply it to our stories. I grew quite panic striken, heartsick actually, when I first realised I would have to change my approach, thinking I would have to totally rewrite the entire draft (and essentially, that is what I’ve been doing, except within the framework of my fourth draft, rather than starting over completely which is what I feared would be necessary), but then, as things shifted around the main theme, I found I could once again push deep, but this time eliminating some of those rabbit trails, of which I had far too many. Arrgh..hope I’m making sense. I’ve never written a novel, but I imagine that processing is as much a part of it as a memoir. I can imagine that it would cause me as much angst as memoir, for that reason! And of course, if you’re bringing in your life experience into the fictional story, it’s bound to cause difficulties as the years go by and we evolve. We just want to get it done…but it’s telling us it wants to sit and brew for a while!!! Writing…you don’t have to be mad to do it, but it helps, ha!!!! Thank YOU Charli! <3

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I think any book we read whether fiction or non fiction will have some that love it, some that hate and many in between. I hope so anyway because this is how I cope with rejection. I see it at book club all the time. You are right – finding the true focus of the story will often change the stories that we tell within the memoir. The others are not discarded but ready to be used in a story with a different focus. I think it must have been a wonderful moment for you when you discovered what your true focus was even if it meant a huge rewrite. It will be a tighter better memoir for it and I’m looking forward to reading it. Knowingly setting up a false identity to my mind is fraud but I agree it would be easy to do. The false memories that I don’t have a problem with are the stories you tell of yourself that you believe with all your soul are true. These memories will make you and account for change as if they are a genuine memory. It makes you realise the mine field we walk upon as we write and communicate our self to others. Look forward to reading your bicycle experiences. Thanks for joining in the discussion again. ??
      Charli I’m sorry you have reached one of those frustrating points in writing where you don’t seem to be able to move forward. Perhaps the ducks have been replaced with rocks and you need to take it in a new direction. Good luck with it.

      • Sherri Matthews

        You have a great take on the handling of rejection, Irene. How do we not take it personally? Looking at it the way you explain here helps greatly. We all have different tastes, but the hope, as you say, that the majority will like it, we can take a great thrill from those who love it and not worry about ‘them others’ who hate it. But it is definitely a minefield in the writing of it. Thank you so much for your great encouragement, as always, Irene. It was both a great and a sickening moment. I finally got what it was I needed to do, but the thought of ‘fixing’ it and all those rewrites absolutely floored me. I was awful to live with, poor M. How he has put up with me, I don’t know. There was only way, as with any writing: get my butt down on a chair and write, one word after the other. And after that, do it all again. Arrrghhh!!!!!
        Love what you said to Charli about replacing ducks with rocks for the time being.
        Thanks again for a wonderful discussion and memoir post, Irene 🙂 >3

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        It’s been fun Sherri. I’ve enjoyed the discussions too and rejection goes with writing – no matter what I say you can’t avoid that personal disappointment but at least you can temper it with rationality and get over it quicker to keep trying again.

      • Sherri Matthews

        It’s been great fun Irene…and yes, so very true… <3

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you, Sherri and Irene. I’ve been thinking about what you both have said here, and I’m picking my way back through the rocks and ducks.

  10. Norah

    Interesting post, Irene. I’ll come back to read the discussion later. I was particularly intrigued by this question: As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?

    • Charli Mills

      I’m still contemplating this same idea, Norah! But the fiction in me appreciates the fiction in you!

      • Norah

        I guess there’s a good bit of fiction in each of us, Charli. And some not so good bits – all the negative untruths we were told, and continue to tell ourselves. I appreciate your fiction too. 🙂

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Glad that gave you some pause for thought Norah. As the mechanisms of remembering become better known it is now believed that on each remembering we create afresh the story we tell and as our world view and belief system evolves our stories will also change or not be told or selectively told to some and not others – does that therefore make us a fiction?

      • Norah

        I’m nodding about the varying ways in which we tell stories, Irene. I’m not sure that it makes us a fiction though. We just reveal different facets of ourselves to different people.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        That is true Norah. We can be multiple identities – a different one for different people but what I am suggesting is that our memories themselves are a creation. Fun to think about but in reality we don’t think about it. We are who we are.

      • Norah

        True. Except for when we’re not. 🙂

  11. Rob Harrigan

    I am currently struggling through my first memoir and I often find myself conflicted between taking creative liberties to fill in the blanks, or just waiting until I remember the details. The best advice I have received from a mentor was, “This is your story, but it is still a story. You are writing about a character, and even though you are the character, your readers don’t necessarily view the character as you.” I’m paraphrasing, but the gist is that I have to remember to separate myself from the character version of me when I get stuck. Does that make my story not true? I don’t know, but it helps just to get some writing done! Anyways, I enjoyed your post! I especially like the part of about our first stories not being our own. That’s going to sit with me for at least the rest of the day!

    • Charli Mills

      Rob, I’m not the memoirist here, so you’ll do best to discuss it with Irene, Sherri and others who are writing memoir, but I know what you are saying about adding in the creative elements. When I write creative non-fiction, I feel more at liberty to do that. I take ownership of the story — I personify the natural world around me, I fill in with my imagination, I take creative liberties. However, I don’t think of that as memoir, per say. But I’m not a memoirist! Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      • Rob Harrigan

        Thank you for responding. I am new to online discussions, which is odd because my generation is all about it, but it is difficult for me for some reason. Have a wonderful day!

    • Charli Mills

      Rob, you’ll find that many enjoy discussing topics and writing here. It’s all at what is comfortable for you!

  12. realmaven18

    Memoir can be can be a beautiful vibrant way to share a story.

    • Charli Mills

      Yes, it certainly can be!

  13. realmaven18

    Such great thoughts…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? — Carrot Ranch Literary Community – My gypsy life - […] via Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? — Carrot Ranch Literary Community […]
  2. Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) - […] Another post I have written for Carrot Ranch on Memoir. via Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? […]
  3. More found poetry from Carrot Ranch | The Daily Compost - […] (from Irene Waters’ post at Carrot Ranch: https://carrotranch.com/2018/07/13/life-is-a-memoir-what-is-fiction/) […]
  4. Fiction: History that might have been | Norah Colvin - […] Irene Waters asked a related question in her article Life is a Memoir: What is Fiction? shared at the…

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