Story in Memoir

Writers of Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir tell their true-to-life tales using the same ancient storytelling techniques that writers of invented tales employ. We all work to capture attention, create immersive dream worlds, and memorably move our audiences. But at times, it may seem as if truth and fiction share no common edges.

Don’t be fooled.

CNF, memoir, biography, autobiography, and other truth-based narratives aren’t all that different from a good old-fashioned work of fiction in shape and intent. They do however, present their own set of unique challenges not the least of which is separating author from narrator from main character.

In 2006, William Zinsser spoke on NPR about the challenges of writing personal history. His book, “How to Write a Memoir” offers this advice:

Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control.

In other words, the memoirist is the author and the hero of the tale being told and along with authorship comes a host of decisions, creation of connections, and interpretation of meaning. Like fictional stories:

  • the story based wholly in truth has a well-defined, interesting protagonist (and as with imaginary characters, the work is to hone your/their various personas and experiences to the one(s) needed to tell the particular story you want to tell)
  • the well-developed throughline (Zinsser’s “narrative trajectory”) keeps the audience hanging on to every scene
  • similarly, no part of the story wanders aimlessly away from the core of the narrative
  • there is meaningful conflict that paves the way to character change

As always, these are guidelines from one writer’s experience. There are no rules to the art of putting words to the page and yet there are generalities that hold up through time and across cultures. Still, countless stories deviate from the guidelines presented here on THE STORY SPOT and remain riveting pieces of art. And aren’t we all grateful for that fact.

On Memoir, Truth and ‘Writing Well,” an interview with William Zinsser on NPR.

Also from William Zinsser:

And a tiny url for your sharing pleasure:

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