"Fiction or Memoir? How to Use Your Real Life Stories" with Valerie Harms

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles. Kristi also taught writing for fifteen years.

Valerie is Valerie Harms, author of eight books in various genres: nature, psychology, biography, and juveniles. Read more about her at A graduate of Smith College, she has taught workshops across the US and in Greece.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews take place on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm your moderator, Kristi Holl, and tonight I have with me Valerie Harms, who will be speaking to us on the subject, "Fiction or Memoir? How to Use Your Real Life Stories." Many writers want to use their own experiences but don't go about it in a successful way, and tonight Valerie will be offering tips on shaping our personal material into salable writing. Welcome, Valerie!

Valerie: Hello, Kristi and everyone else.

Moderator: Valerie, can you first tell us how you got started writing in the first place?

Valerie: I have wanted to write ever since being a young girl. The desire to share myself started early.

Moderator: Before we discuss this evening's topic, could you give us an overview of your published work?

Valerie: All my books - and articles too - have come from my passions. I wrote about knowing Elvis Presley when he was just getting started. I got very involved in conservation issues and wrote an Almanac of the Environment. I have written about writers I admire and travels I've had.

Moderator: What a variety! Let's get right to the topic of the evening now. Valerie, what is the difference between writing the story of your life and memoir? Fiction and nonfiction?

Valerie: Writing the story of your life - the whole thing - is called autobiography. Memoir is when you take a piece of it to illustrate a theme. Novels, we know, have plots, characters, dialogue, and nonfiction covers a variety of other kinds of prose writing. These are brief definitions. I hope to get into each more fully.

Moderator: How do you decide which genre to use?

Valerie: Writing the story of one's life is usually done for family histories. Everyone has this great desire to share their life, the things that have affected them the most or to understand what happened to them better. You would choose memoir if you wanted to share with others what it was like to be at the World Trade Center on 9/11, for instance, or to grow up in Africa. Fiction is the choice if you want to make things up. Erica Jong's novels, for instance, are closely related to her life, but she calls them novels because she invents. An example of nonfiction would be an article on alcoholism. You may know all about it from your own experience but you choose to research treatment programs, its affect on crimes, statistics, etc. In other words, you generalize far from your own experiences.

Moderator: Can you tell us a little more about which direction or genre to actually choose?

Valerie: You need to feel what genre pulls you the most. If you want to sell your work, then nonfiction is the best bet. Many writers want to get at the "truth" of what happened, but there are many ways to the truth. Your first impulse might be to write a family chronicle, but then you may feel guilty about that. Going for fiction eliminates a lot of guilt. Nonfiction is the most marketable, but we have to beware being boring. For instance, I am sure we've all read biographies that accumulate all the "facts" about a person, but we don't feel the "essence" of the person by just facts. Also, such facts can leave false impressions. But there are many kinds of nonfiction. You can do profiles of people you admire, a reminiscence or nostalgia piece. You can do a self-help article based on how you changed or an essay with a point of view and researched material. You can also do poetry or plays.

Moderator: What are other nonfiction alternatives to using personal experience?

Valerie: Another example would be if you suffered the death of a partner or child, you can relate your experience to others who might have the same tragedy. The same with healing from an illness. A cheerier example would be if you are a tennis player or competed in a sport as a kid. Because you have a feel for the subject, you can use it to provide good background material, or create drama, or use your knowledge to profile a pro or cover a tournament. Other examples are writing travel pieces based on your own experiences, or financial advice or how to profit in real estate. Others have, and you can too.

red2: About a year ago, I spent mornings with a mentally handicapped woman. I was thinking of writing about that experience. Would that be considered a memoir? Would I have to get permission from the woman's family to write this piece?

Valerie: That sounds like a promising subject for a memoir. You would have to get permission. Thus, if you don't get it, you can resort to fiction.

WrittenWyrds: What is the best market for memoirs when you are starting out?

Valerie: Memoirs are taken by literary journals, many magazines, and book publishers.

WrittenWyrds: This was alluded to before, but when you write memoir about your experiences with other people, do you need to have "permission" from them to write about them for publication?

Valerie: This depends on who the people are. If friends or family members, then no. The problem there is whether you want to upset them. You are entitled to write about your life, but you can't libel them - i.e. imply they committed a crime - or defame them in any way, or else you risk a lawsuit. But you don't have to ever ask permission to write about your life!

Gail: If you just starting out how do you know which genre suits you?

Valerie: If you are just starting out, I would try one of the many kinds of articles I mentioned. Or, you can pick a portion of your life and write about that. When you write a memoir, though, don't do it in a chronological way, as that can be too boring. One tends to say "and then and then" - TOO MUCH! A good example of a family memoir is Mary Karr's The Liars Club. It's very critical of her parents, but neither ended up minding. It actually brought her closer to her mother. But she wrote it in an original way. It was her style of writing and originality that made it a hit.

Moderator: What's popular when writing memoirs?

Valerie: They've been trendy lately, which means a lot of subjects have been done - from dysfunctional families on. If you have an angle that has not been done, so much the better.

Moderator: Are there any sure bets?

Valerie: Here are some hot topics now: adventures, especially extreme ones (which leaves a lot of us out). How many of us can climb Mount Everest or go to Afghanistan? But closer to home, I think growing a special plant or sharing an unusual activity with a child would work. Meeting famous people, getting involved in political events, and holiday themes are always popular.

WrittenWyrds: Are personal experience memoirs more marketable than other nonfiction?

Valerie: No.

Gail: There are so many self-help type books and "I have overcome that" books that there must be a glut by now. Comment?

Valerie: Yes, that's true. You'd have to find a new problem to overcome, or a new method to overcome it!

PaulPlqn: The memoirs we are speaking length or article length?

Valerie: Some are book length, some articles. My last examples have all been for articles.

Moderator: Memoirs include dialogue, but is it made up? No one can remember verbatim conversations that took place so many years ago. Are conversations constructed around one remembered line, or just its intention or message perhaps?

Valerie: The reason memoirs become so controversial is because of made-up dialogue. Some publishers feel that if you can't quote exactly, that then you are writing fiction. Other publishers are not that rigid and accept "intention." Each of us may know our intention, but that of others is debatable.

Moderator: We talked about memoirs earlier, but what are some pitfalls with using personal experience in stories or novels?

Valerie: The problem with sticking to exactly what happened tends to make a story boring because you the writer know how everything turns out. As a result some tension is lost and the reader knows that. You have to be free to invent and condense your material. If, say, you've been divorced or injured in a car crash, you can use your memories and feelings to apply to other characters in a conflict you've imagined. You can combine characters or make up new ones.

Moderator: Why is it so hard to break free of what you think actually happened?

Valerie: We writers want to write "our" stories as we think they happened. Some writers are able to be freer when hiding behind the masks of characters. Some find it easier to approach very painful experiences indirectly. To write about them as memoir would be too hard a confrontation. In fiction you can explore roads you didn't take in your life, you can fantasize to the extreme. In any case, it's important to use scenes. In memoirs there is too much of a tendency to just summarize events. If you feel you must write what happened, then write your heart out as you wish. Afterwards, go back and see what else you can make of these feelings and events. Often in writing about what's happened to us, we come to new awarenesses and understand things more deeply.

red2: I wrote a fiction story based on experiences from my mother's and her sister's childhood. When I added characters and more conflict, I felt like I wasn't being true to the original story.

Valerie: I know what you mean. That shows how hard it is to break free. Somehow what actually happened can feel like it is carved in stone. But you can free it up by recognizing that your life is just full of rich raw material that can go in a lot of directions.

Moderator: I find it difficult to see where memoir ends and faction, then fiction starts. In writing memoir, how much do you remember? How much do you make up? How free can we be with the facts?

Valerie: Memoir is confined very closely to what happens to you. Faction is when you treat an actual event like a work of fiction, as Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood, about a crime. The crime consisted of facts around which the author constructed a plot. A novel or a story doesn't happen in real time. In it you can be totally free with the facts.

Moderator: How do you revise and tell if what you are writing is good and has feeling?

Valerie: We all want to write about the stuff that clogs our hearts and minds, to express certain awarenesses we've had. That's fine for ourselves but if we want to reach others, then we have to make our material accessible to them. Usually the best way is to have them engage with characters and conflict. Let's say you have broken up with a loved one. Lots of pages are filled with love stories. You can give your feelings to a new set of characters. Make the love affair part of a bigger plot.

Moderator: More suggestions?

Valerie: I highly suggest reading your material to others to see what sort of impact it is having. See if others are involved. Don't forget to brainstorm themes as your material can be used in a variety of ways.

PaulPlqn: About the revision process: when do you know something is good enough?

Valerie: You never know. The best writers rarely think what they've done is "good enough." I think if themes are important to us, we tend to use them in different formats. They evolve with us. In the meantime we just let go of our attempts.

WrittenWyrds: What kinds of memoirs stand out in the pile on the editor's desk?

Valerie: Anything that is new and different. That's why market research is important.

Moderator: What about choosing your audience?

Valerie: Crucial. You must decide whether you want to write for your self alone or for others - the marketplace. Once you know who you want to reach, then you can decide on category.

JaciRae: How does your audience determine your category? I don't quite understand.

Valerie: If you want to really sell your work, then choose an article. You might want to reach travelers with a travel experience. Or sports outlets with a profile.

Moderator: Okay, you've done your rough draft. Before revising, what do you look for in evaluating this draft?

Valerie: As with any piece of writing, you have to look at its strength and weaknesses. If a story, is it suspenseful and does it have a conflict? Is it too long or too short? An important quality in memoir is your voice. Does it sound honest, have a sense of "soul"? You don't want to talk down to the reader or sound confused by it all.

Moderator: How do you decide on the right approach?

Valerie: A very good example, in my view, is a man who was going to write about a girl's life on an Indian reservation. His nonfiction work was rejected again and again. He then wrote a memoir of his relationship with the girl and how he was affected. That approach was successful.

Moderator: How important is the actual style of your prose?

Valerie: Prose is always super important. You need to use strong active verbs, fresh metaphors, brevity, and root out clichés.

Moderator: Let's get more specific, Valerie. What about some "nuts and bolts" tips for writing autobiography or memoir?

Valerie: Forget excessive facts. Keep your story flowing emotionally. Writing for the historical record, you can use diaries, letters, and photographs to sound authentic. Deepen your understanding of what happened to you by a variety of techniques, one of the most useful being understanding what it is like for others.

Moderator: What about threat of being sued for writing about other people? What are the rules? What are some guidelines for when to "change names to protect the innocent" (or guilty)?

Valerie: If you want to be protected, you put in a disclaimer in the front saying that this work is intended as fiction, even though some names might be actual. For instance, some stories are set in places that are real, the streets are exact, but the events are not. Even in fiction though, if people are too recognizable and feel defamed, then you may be subject to a lawsuit. Unless agreed otherwise, a publisher passes on the legal cost to you. A lot of writers will show a manuscript to people to see if anything bothers them, and if so, they will remove whatever offends. You don't have to though. Some examples: Doris Lessing has written a couple of volumes of her autobiography, but she won't go any farther than the 1960's because she has friends who are still alive. So she has fictionalized a lot of her experiences then. The biographer of Ronald Reagan admitted he made up dialogue and scenes. He was highly criticized. Prize-winning author, V. S. Naipul, writes a combination of memoir, fiction, history. He is quite skilled. So I can only say there is a lot of room for blending and creating.

Moderator: If the experience happened to me, and is true, can I use it even if it portrays someone else in a poor light? Does it matter what someone thinks if you can actually PROVE it was true?

Valerie: A "poor light" is not the same as defaming. Defaming really implies serious things like crimes or sexual abuse. You can be subject to a suit if the person does not think you proved anything of this kind of a serious matter.

james55clinton: How do you disguise a unique hometown? I fear if I mention the herring smoke house or the orange juice tanker on the East River, the locals will know the town and thereby the church, school, tavern, local politicians, etc.? I don't wish to identify certain clergy and politicians.

Valerie: Do you have to use that particular town, or could the principle and the story stay the same if you moved it elsewhere?

GjolboeCreations: Is journaling an important tool for finding subject matter and for accurate recall?

Valerie: Yes, a very good source because as time goes by, the vibrancy of the moment is forgotten. Also, it is a good idea to interview relatives or friends. Develop a system for organizing your material.

PaulPlqn: I assume it is the author's responsibility to get all necessary releases of real people in their memoir?

Valerie: You don't need releases from anyone just to write about your life. You would only need a release if your prime focus was an article or a book about a certain person, such as the mentally handicapped person previously mentioned. As a writer, you are a free agent but there are dangers if you get into areas of defaming.

Moderator: How can anyone, like the writer of Angela's Ashes, so many years after the events described, possibly have remembered so much--and accurately?

Valerie: Frank McCourt, the author, was an English teacher, remember. He knew a lot about writing fiction. He made the story of his life like a novel but I am sure he condensed, combined events and constructed dialogue to suit his purposes.

Moderator: Real-life events often are spread out over long periods of time. Can a memoir writer "play" with time? Condense events perhaps? If so, how?

Valerie: Yes. I just had the experience of writing about a scene in Greece. When I went there I had no idea that March was ritualized to celebrate Pan and the running of sap, readiness of soil for seed, etc., but I wove that info into my scene after the fact. You can also select one or two scenes that illustrate the same point. That's where the editing process comes in. Pruning makes a work of art out of your raw material.

Moderator: To be truthful about your life, do you need to tell the whole story? Or only the crucial parts? How do you know what to leave out?

Valerie: You certainly don't need to tell the whole story. I suggest selecting vivid scenes or moments that represent the "truth" you are driving at. Remember, if writing a memoir find an angle or a theme and build your events around that.

WrittenWyrds: When you write a memoir about your experiences, do you go back and research to add detail, or just write it as you "remember" it?

Valerie: Yes, that is a really good idea. Researching will enable you to enrich your work so much.

Moderator: Since memoirs are made of memories, and memories sometimes change and reshape themselves after we learn other facts later in life, is that a concern when you write about other people?

Valerie: Yes. Our memories are ours but they are quite complicated. Studies have shown that the further you get from an event, the more different the version becomes. That's not too surprising. More seriously, we have defenses against realizing ALL of the facets of experiences. Our vision may be distorted by attitudes toward other people. So, we have to be careful or dig deeply.

PaulPlqn: How helpful are editors? And should you have a market/publication in mind as you write?

Valerie: Editors can't help you, of course, until they take you on. Keeping your market options in mind is always a good idea, but many publications are open to memoirs. Not so with fiction. I'd like to suggest a book for you all, which is not only about writing "the story of your life" but about a variety of genres. It is Ruth Kanin's Write the Story of Your Life. It's been useful to me.

Moderator: Thanks! I'm sorry to have to interrupt at this point, but we're out of time. Valerie, thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing your many ideas on how we can use our personal experiences and mold them into fiction and nonfiction. It helps us to understand better how to "write what we know"!

Valerie: Good-bye. I appreciated your great questions.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on April 4 when Diane Kirkle will be discussing "E-Publishing: Wave of the Future?" Just what IS e-publishing? So often it is confused with vanity or self-publishing. Does it really cost nothing to publish an e-book? Is an e-book a real book? What does POD stand for? Recent studies show that e-books have done better than publishers had predicted, and authors are taking an even closer look now at electronic publishing. Come to hear Diana talk about this publishing phenomena. Her books are available with e-publishers and have won awards, so do come back in two weeks and ask an e-publishing expert your questions. And now, good night, everyone!

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