View Full Version : Applying principles of fiction to memoir

Ava Jarvis
10-19-2007, 10:46 PM
I've been asked by Shelly to write here about my approach to the LSW challenges. I am very shy about some things (although obviously not a lot of things ;)) so I'll try not to go overboard...

If you have read my work in the LSW Challenge room, then you are probably familiar with my style, which reads much more like a fiction story, like flash fiction, than perhaps a memoir.

But though I may write like fiction, none of it is fiction (though sometimes I wish it were, while I'm writing it).

So what do I do...

I try to find a time in my life that applies, that has some strong emotion attached. We all do this. Good thing, because the stronger the emotion at the time---no matter what kind of emotion it is---the easier it is to frame up with the following structure...

- First, I must want something badly during that moment. It could be a job, or it could be dancing with someone I have a crush on. Doesn't matter; I just need to have wanted it badly at that moment in my life.

- Second, I must find an arc where I learn something and/or aim for some goal. What you learn does not necessarily have to be explicit or big---it can just be a small state change in your world view. Though sometimes I don't learn anything---but I lay it out for my audience to see what I did not.

- Third, the stake in the arc must be relatively high. At that point in my life, I must have cared for some reason. Losing a job with no safety net is a very obvious high stake, but so is losing a chance at saying "I love you" to someone you might have loved at the time. And so is not getting a kangaroo eraser when you're five, or missing out on an opportunity to take photographs of the cherry blossoms while you're in D.C. for a week.

- Fourth, write in "true" first person point-of-view, as it is defined in fiction. One of the basic mistakes in fiction concerning first person is to not let the reader in on the POV's thoughts. All observations should be colored by your POV's thoughts, views, attitude. Even mere scenery should be emotionally evocative through your non-objective interpretation.

- Fifth, find a theme. Stories are always nice, but they are even nicer when they are "about" something. Yes, memoirs are about real life, and yes, real life is messier than fiction. But all the more reason that a theme is so strong, to give meaning and resonance. After all, the things that affect us in life may not always make sense, but they can provoke a powerful reaction in us regardless.

- Sixth, cut down the backstory as much as possible. You have the main story. Unless it is really necessary, have the backstory come out through the main story. This goes hand in hand with...

- Seventh, try for show rather than tell. For instance, I can tell you explicitly about how every encounter with a certain professor was a build up of my increasing infatuation... or I can show you a series of short encounters that illustrate the point implicitly. I can tell you that I was, perhaps, a wee bit irrationally jealous... or I can show you my reaction to a wedding announcement. It is stronger to show without an explanatory tell.

- Eighth and last, in fiction, the idea is to hurt the protagonist. Quite literally, this is true (get protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him/her really is what we're doing, all humor aisde). This means that if you approach memoir as fiction and you are, usually, the protagonist... yes. It means exposing that pain for all to see, showing your faults to the world. But it also means showing the world your joys, showing the world your strengths. Get the reader right up next to you.

(For me, the last part also provokes the most reversion to LOLcats.)

Hope this is helpful. :)

10-20-2007, 06:18 PM
I've seen many of these ideas in how-to books, but it really does help to have someone's personal reinterpretation. Thank you for posting your views/suggestions!

I'm fairly new on AW and am still trying to find my way around the place. Would you please point me in the direction of one of your LSW entries?

Ava Jarvis
10-20-2007, 11:17 PM
Hi! I'm glad you find this helpful. :) And welcome to AW!

The LSW Challenge room is right at the top of the main forum page of the LSW forum. You will need to use the password itsmylife to get in. Here is a direct link:


My stuff is in some of the threads. Just three items so far in these challenge threads: Time of Your Life, Road Trip, Wedding Bells. I plan to keep doing them. The challenges have a small upper limit on word count, but the exercise teaches me a lot. And frankly in some cases it is extremely therapeutic, especially the painful Wedding Bells one which I definitely needed a dose of LOLcat after....

10-20-2007, 11:31 PM
Thanks, Ava, for posting this thread. Indeed, it is helpful for you to lay it out so well. To see the potential for having an effect on the reader in the fewest words helps to obscure the fact that we are writing about ourselves and indeed, being a witness to our own destruction, at times.

I like most is your mention that memoir/essay really should have a theme that pulls the purpose of the piece together, although that can admittedly be hard to find. Even if our lives aren't neat, we do need a frame in which to view the composition--otherwise it can descend into something resembling a laundry list of things, rather than an artistic piece.

10-21-2007, 12:10 AM
Thanks for posting this Ava. You make some very good points.

Shwebb, your comment highlights my biggest problem - making sure the story stays on track. I have my overall theme, then a couple sub-themes, then a few anecdotes... you get the idea. It's tricky to pick and choose amid your own life what's worthy to share and what may be a funny/cool/touching story but really has no relevance. I'm writing about a particular time in my life but that doesn't mean every detail needs to be included.

Thanks for the guidance. :)