On the Memoir

J. Robert Lennon brings up something that’s been on my mind a lot recently: How do you write a good memoir? How much of it has to be true?

Some of you may already know that I’m trying to garner interest in a book proposal I’ve written about my personal experiences on the JuanWay tour (which hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hoping that a book advance would finance my passage on the bus). And while writing this proposal, I’ve had to stretch a lot of creative nonfiction muscles that I normally don’t use.

First, a confession: I fucking hate memoirs. Most memoirs, anyway. And yes, as an aspiring novelist, I’m a little bitter that every C-list celebrity and former politician gets a book deal to write about their crappy lives in drab prose, while the market for interesting, groundbreaking fiction continues to shrink. Look, folks, just because a story is literally true doesn’t make it interesting, or give it literary merit. First and foremost, it needs to speak to deeper truths.

That’s why I’ve decided that Anne Marie (the proposed book, named after the bus on which the tour will take place) is going to be something of an anti-memoir.

What I mean is, I’m approaching this more like a work of fiction than a work of journalism. The difference, of course, is that with a work of journalism, the primary concern is depicting reality as it exists, while with a work of fiction, the primary concern is telling a good story that gets to some of those deeper truths I mentioned earlier.

So the story will be true. The names, events and locations will be true. But, unlike when I’m journalisming, I reserve the right to tweak here. And the criteria for tweaking is as follows:

My recounting of the trip will be as accurate as possible except when the actual reality of the trip drastically undermines the pacing, characterization, thematic cohesion or entertainment value of the story itself.

Fiction writers tweak like this all the time. You get an idea for a character or a plot point, and you complicate it. You go back in a later draft and edit it to make for a better story. I’m going to treat reality like a first draft that has already been written for me, and I’m going to treat that first draft with a lot more deference than most fiction writers should probably give to their own first drafts.

After all, it’s still factually true. And that’s extremely important, but I don’t think it’s inviolable.

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