I’m PMSing today, and everything is making me grumpy. I was just having a text conversation with Tara about the difference between memoir and fiction, and it was making me grumpy, which is silly. But then I thought I would write about it here, and I would feel better. Even though I think what we were texting about is the difficulties in forming a plot arc in memoir, and not what follows.

There is no difference between memoir and fiction. They are written, edited, imagined, and structured almost exactly the same way. The reason that there is a “boom” right now in the memoir genre is because it has become socially acceptable to write memoir. Before the nineties, when it wasn’t as socially acceptable to write memoir, people still wrote memoir, they just called it “fiction”.

James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, other people that I can’t think of right now. The way they used to do it was they wrote memoir but they chopped it up some, rearranged things, fleshed out characters a little bit, and then published it as fiction, because back then if you wrote “memoir” and you weren’t a former US president, people thought you were a narcissist and a fool.

So now people still write the same sorts of stories, but if it feels like memoir you can call it that, so more people do. It’s still chopped up, fleshed out, some parts collapsed, rearranged, and sprinkled with hyperbole, but it’s memoir. That’s what memoir is.

The only real reality that is really true in the exact way that you are experiencing it is the reality you are in right now, sitting at your computer in your little room with your cat or whatever, reading this. When you take an experience that has already happened and only exists anymore in your brain and you write it down it has not only changed in the amount of time since it happened but now it is reduced to a bunch of characters on a blank page and the best you can hope for is that when another person reads those characters it conjures up the same emotions you felt, in the correct order.

When I write I draw from my real life experiences because I am lazy. People who identify as fiction writers go to libraries and do research on sea creatures and ancient Gaelic dialects, or whatever, and that’s what they use to tell their story. The story we are telling is the same. It is an emotional story. It is a story of feeling. When I write I want to manipulate you. I want you to feel a certain way. So I take little pieces from my life like little colored tiles and I arrange them just-so so that when you gaze on them it will invoke a series of emotions in you. The moral of my story: existence is magical. I could write this story using sea creatures speaking ancient Gaelic dialects or I could write it using little pieces of my life that I cut up and glue together, like making a collage. Both stories are true, because they FEEL true. The reality is an EMOTIONAL reality.

When I write, I don’t think about it as memoir or fiction. When I write I have an emotional story in mind that I want to tell, and I have sitting next to me a cardboard box of little pieces of colored tile; my life, or what I can remember of it. I take out the colored bits and start arranging my mosaic. I step back. It doesn’t look right so I take some bits down and rearrange it a different way. I am still learning how to do this, the arranging. It is the exact same thing that fiction writers do- you make a hook, some yearning, suspense, a plot arc, pacing, and other things I don’t understand/know the names of because I do not have an MFA. When I am trying to build a larger piece of writing I am constantly stepping back, looking at my tile pieces, and rearranging things. Adding more color there, more depth here, etc. I’m nowhere near a pro and I haven’t really “finished” anything big yet. But I like arranging my little tiles.

I’ve only written a little bit of fiction but it felt exactly the same, except more work, because instead of pre-made tiles I had to make the tiles myself, from scratch, which feels like a pain in the ass, but kind of good exercise for my brain. Sometimes if I have been imagining things for long enough, like this piece I wrote about what an estate sale is, the fiction comes easily to me. Most times though when I write fiction the story just kind of dies, like the other day when I tried to create a character based all of the bad reviews this one woman on Amazon had left for products that she had bought. I started looking at her reviews because she left a really, really harsh review for Tara’s book, and then I saw that mostly what she does is get free books from independent authors and write reviews that rip them to shreds. But then I saw that a few years ago, her reviews were all positive. And that she really, really liked cinnamon gel toothpaste but that she thought this one golden glitter spray-paint was an abomination of the spray-paint market. And then I saw that she had left the same review on goodreads, and on her goodreads page was a link to her website, which had a link to her etsy site, her twitter, her facebook, and both her personal and crafty blogs… I started creating this character in my mind while reading about all of the things that she did and did not like, texting back and forth with Tara. What do you think happened to her? I texted to Tara. Why did all her reviews become so harshly negative? What made her so bitter? And look, she makes pointillism paintings of futurama characters and sells them at comics conventions! And I really wanted to write a story about her. So I started to write one that was fiction, and it died after a couple of pages. But obviously, what I really want to do is write this story that I’m writing right now, which is the story of me discovering this person’s fascinating online identity and trying to imagine what their inner drives and motivations might be.

But my point is, making the tiles from scratch is really hard work, and I have huge admiration for fiction writers. Especially because memoir is more popular than literary fiction right now. Actually, for that reason I feel a little bit sorry for current writers of literary fiction. It is becoming a bit of a selfless cause, like being a poet. Or maybe that’s just what writers of literary fiction get, for not putting enough ACTION and ADVENTURE into their novels in the last couple of decades. Because good memoirs always have action and adventure. “The time I almost died.” “The time I escaped.” “The time I did something that was totally wild to me and this is what happened.”

I have been lucky, in my life, to have found such incredible memoir to be inspired by. In honor of this long and ranting post, here is a list of some of the memoir that shakes me up the most, that discombobulates my ideas of what is and is not possible in memoir, that makes me feel like a snowglobe turned upside-down.

  • The Amphetamine Logic columns by Cat Marnell
  • The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Bandit Queen of India by Phoolan Devi (Someone should really, really make this into a hollywood movie)
  • Closet Full of Coke: A Diary of a Teenage Drug Queen by Indra Sena (This author also has a blog with some really frank and wonderful pieces on the misconceptions of writing memoir here)
  • All of the things that Tara Burns writes and lets me read but has not yet published and so you can’t see them but one day you will, and your world will never be the same

Also, if you don’t yet know about my kickstarter project, I’m raising money to hike the PCT and write a book about it, which I promise will be weird and hallucinatory and unlike anything that has ever been written about the PCT, ever. There are only thirteen days left in the campaign, and the way that kickstarter works is that if I don’t raise all the money, I don’t get any of it. So if my campaign fails, I can’t hike the PCT. So please share the link to my campaign far and wide- that will better my chances of being funded. And thank you in advance!


  1. Hi Carrot,

    I read an excellent memoir recently, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, a terrific read about growing up with the most preposterously eccentric and selfish parents . After 17 years of extreme poverty, nomadic rootlessness, homelessness, hunger and outrageous neglect she managed to get herself off to an Ivy League education and ultimately a very successful and high profile career in NYC where she kept her background a secret for years. During this time she had regular contact with her parents who were homeless by choice on the streets there. She certainly had great material for a typical ‘abuse’ memoir but she wrote it without bitterness or whining, very evenhanded. Although her parents are outrageously irresponsible it’s clear they love their children and in fact were able to provide some positive influences upon them. In this quote about the book she could be addressing your point about emotional reality:

    “The first version was too distanced; I was writing it as a journalist. It wasn’t emotionally raw enough. That’s one of the reasons I wrote it from the perspective of a child is to convey those emotions and re-experience them.”

    For her second book she wrote Half Broke Horses, which she called a “true life novel”, it’s her maternal grandmother’s story written in her voice with details filled in to flesh out the story, it crosses over into ‘fiction’.

    “Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix readers everywhere.”

    There you go and that’s high praise indeed. In my experience the pinnacle of memoirs is Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, packed with fantastic adventures described in understated, matter of fact yet elegant language, the way a life should be.

    Your memoir is so compelling and engaging, it’s clear you are possessed of the same magic as these others. You won’t be needing that MFA, you already know how to write more than well enough and furthermore you have something to say. You’re absolutely right, existence is magical. There’s no way to intellectualize that.

    All the best,

  2. Dave-
    I was lucky enough to stumble upon both of Jeannette Wells’ books last year and yes, they are AWESOME. Her storytelling ability is pure magic. And thank you for the nice words!


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