Back in the 1980s when music came on cassette tapes, Memorex ads challenged listeners to figure out if what they were hearing was real or taped on Memorex tape.
Readers sometimes ask this, too: “Is it real?” When it’s memoir, the answer is yes.
But there’s another beast on book shelves that is more like Memorex. Not real, maybe, but darn close. That other beast is autobiographical fiction.
It’s a gray line, perhaps, but the line between the two is truth. Memoir, sometimes labeled “a memoir” on the cover, is true. Literary fiction, often labeled as “a novel,” is not. Autobiographical fiction straddles the line between the two. Neither 100 percent true nor completely made-up, neither a memoir nor a novel, autobiographical fiction cultivates the ground of both.
When an author classifies a book as memoir, she’s making a deal with the reader: This story is the truth. Oftentimes, a memoirist includes a reader’s note that says something to the effect of “the names have been changed to protect identities, and some events have been altered or omitted to streamline the storytelling.” But memoirists can’t make up characters or events out of thin air. Memoir essentially means “this story happened to me.”
An autobiographical novel is partially fiction. While the events of the author’s life are the story, there is no pretense of exact truth. Locations are changed, and events may be embellished or altered for artistic or thematic purposes.
Some classic examples of excellent autobiographical fiction include Someset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (which is mentioned, by the way, in Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat).
You might recall the mess author James Frey kicked up when it was revealed that A Million Little Pieces, initially marketed as a memoir, contained a lot of made-up details and embellishment. Frey eventually admitted to fabricating elements of his criminal past and the details of his girlfriend’s suicide. Some fact-checkers doubt the veracity of the opening scene which includes details of Frey bleeding and being unconscious on a plane and a visceral scene where he endures a root canal without anesthesia. After Oprah Winfrey decried Frey’s truthfulness, the book is now marketed as “semi-fictional.”
Wisely, author Laura Ingalls Wilder avoided this controversy by having her now classic Little House Books for children classified as historical fiction. The books reflect her life story, but many, many details were changed (for an excellent analysis of what was factual and what was embellished, read Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography edited by Pamela Smith Hill; it is Wilder’s memoir, written before the Little House series, footnoted by Hill to compare and contrast the two stories).
This brings me to Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982. I anticipate readers, especially those who also walked the halls of Wadena Senior High School in the 1980s, might ask me, “Is this really true?”
True, yes, absolutely. The book reflects how I felt the year I turned 15 and learned to French kiss. I have included actual diary entries at the beginning of every chapter. I really did learn to French kiss the year I turned 15, a stalker-type classmate really invaded my personal space the way I describe in the book and I really fell in love with a tall, sandy-haired boy.
Also in Truth, Dare, I attempted to summon a sense of a real place. Central Minnesota is unique in its geography, weather and people. I think I managed to accurately capture this in some ways, but I have another book idea (it’s actually my mom’s idea, let’s be honest as long as we’re talking about truth) that would be more of a love letter to Central Minnesota than even this one.
But not every detail is factual. The time frame covered in the book was more like two years than one, the “mean girl” in my story is a composite of three classmates with an added dash of sluttiness that I both envied and found repulsive, and I made up a lot of the dialogue (for a full dissection of dialogue in memoir, check back here next Thursday).
So while I toyed with calling this latest book a memoir, I decided in the end to classify it as autobiographical fiction. Of course, I hope you’ll like it anyway.
That’s the truth, and I’m sticking to it.
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I’m celebrating the countdown to the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 with a month-long blogging bonanza, which means I’ll be blogging here every day this month about my book, about memoirs in general and about the launch.