One of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.
Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.
When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.
To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.
So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.
You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?