What is your story? Do you want to give it voice? If so, how? As a memoir? As an autobiography? Does your story include that of an ancestor or mentor? Perhaps the influential someone accomplished a feat that defied expectations set for his or her gender, race, or social class? Or contributed to the betterment of humankind in a notable way? If so, maybe a biography is in order. No matter the answers to these questions, it is essential for anyone interested in writing a form of creative nonfiction (CN), such as memoir, autobiography, or biography, to understand the differences between the sub-genres and the conventions therein.
For the uninitiated, a book that I have used to introduce creative nonfiction to college undergraduates is Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz. The work explains CN in a clear and concise manner; discusses various facets from prewriting and voice to research and ethics; and then introduces various sub-genres, providing examples of each in the form of essays and excerpts.
Even though in many bookstores today all long-form CN sub-genres are still lumped under the category, “Biography,” distinctions need to be made between the three types. Usually in school, we are taught that “autobiography” refers to one’s own story and “biography” refers to someone else’s story. What about “memoir,” though? Some people consider autobiography and memoir to be synonymous, when actually, they are quite different.
Whereas an autobiography records a person’s life from birth to death in a chronological manner, a memoir may be organized in any number of ways. A memoirist may choose to cover a large span in time or he or she may concentrate on a particular time period instead. Memoir may be organized thematically or spatially. It may be in collage form or as quilted patches of vignettes. The form, in fact, has considerably more “elbow room” in relation to structure. In addition, while autobiography contains a voice that primarily tells the author’s story, in memoir, showing is the primary mode.
A book that I highly recommend reading prior to committing pen to paper in draft form is Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Although it is not exclusive to memoir, the author provides an in-depth look at the characteristics that distinguish CN from fiction as well as at the research and crafting processes that are appropriate for long-form work.
A more recently published resource that is memoir specific is Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which, according to memoirist Cheryl Strayed, “Will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come.” The guide, which is written in a straight forward and entertaining manner, shows writers how to overcome writers’ block, understand voice and ethics, and appreciate the craft stage of writing; it even includes a list of recommended reads.
As for me, I recommend reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild for excellent examples of voices that work in memoir writing. Both women writers’ stories are depicted with a good balance of factual and emotional truth; each one faces her dragons (ranging from substance abuse to family dysfunction to grief), and, at the same time, uses humor to help the medicine of reality go down smoothly.
Janine Harrison, M.A., M.F.A. poet, fiction writer, and nonfictionist, teaches creative writing at Purdue University Northwest and is a former Indiana Writers’ Consortium president. Her work has appeared in Veils, Halos, & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, A&U, Not Like the Rest of Us: An Anthology of Contemporary Indiana Writers, and other publications. Former Indiana Poet Laureate George Kalamaras included Janine in his The Wabash Watershed “Six Indiana Women Poets” feature. For additional information, please visit her website: www.janineharrison.live.