Scribes in Conversation

Creative Nonfiction & Memoirs: Cross Pollination of Writing Genres – a Good Thing or…

Dear Jeanette;

I’ve been reading memoir and books on the writing of memoir to get a stronger handle on this maligned and sometimes slippery genre. I’m happy to report an increased respect for memoir. There are some real standout examples of literary craftsmanship, thematic depth, style, and voice. The range of subjects and their treatment have broadened my understanding of the tools and sensibilities employed in memoir.

Annette Yourk. Photo by Penny Apple Photography of Quadra Island, BC

Annette Yourk. Photo by Penny Apple Photography of Quadra Island, BC

These textual wanderings have also visited autobiography, family history, the literary essay, realms of creative nonfiction, and fiction; given that elements fiction writing often surface in memoir and other creative nonfiction narrative.

Each naming by genre claims definition and distinction, until banks of fog rise up between them, erasing these distinctions and causing confusion for the earnest writer embarking on their own narrative writing project. Is there no reliable classification system we can count on to keep genres straight? No hard, fast rules to keep us working within the conventions of the genre.

In Philip Lopate’s book To Show and To Tell; The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Lopate concedes that “there are few hard differences between fiction and nonfiction, but one of them is to intentionally tell one’s past experience (he’s talking about memoir writing here) in the voice of an unreliable narrator” –that is the voice of a narrator the reader can’t trust. Lopate considers this a device reserved for fiction.

What do you think? As a history writer, are there areas where you see places for elements of fiction writing or memoir-style narration. Are these lines between genre just as blurry for you, or do I need to upgrade my eye glasses prescription?

Annette Yourk

♠ ♠ ♠

Dear Annette;

This discussion raises issues that are top of mind for me. I finally got back to work on my history manuscript this week, after a ten-month hiatus.

Jeanette Taylor on a heritage sites tour aboard the Columbia III.

Jeanette Taylor, heritage sites tour aboard the Columbia III.

It’s a big deal to pick up a long neglected manuscript, to immerse myself again in the research material and the stories. But willpower triumphed. I sharpened my pencil and began with a reread (no edits, I swear, though that pencil twitched in my hand!) Instead, I noted evidence of scenes. The result, in this regard, was disappointing. It’s hard to create scenes from the slim evidence of the past. I’ve got maybe ten in 100 pages. Most are just half-scenes, a mix of narration and action snippets. And there’s no real dialogue, just quotes; a pale cousin to interactive discussion.

You see I’m test driving creative nonfiction because I want to bring life and vigor to this narrative. The form (or is it a genre, as Wikipedia purports?) calls for fiction-like scenes, conflict resolution, dialogue, and telling details.

There isn’t a lot of guidance here. And for some, especially in the history field, creative nonfiction is anathema. The writers at the forefront of this experimentation seem to be memoirists.

The hot spot in the debate is the use of dialogue. Memoir writers like Jeannette Walls give us dialogue that can’t be verbatim. (Who remembers exactly what they said when they were eight-years-old?) The reader must—and in her case they do—accept that it’s representational. The rest of us nonfiction writers can’t follow suit. If I injected dialogue into my histories, based upon my sense of things, I’d lose reader trust in a flash.

So you see, you’re not the only one blinded by this dash into new territory. But, I suppose that’s as it should be. We’re not sure where this path will lead. My hope is that history writing will bust loose from a tradition of boring pomposity as we proceed. There are glimmers of this already, with a new vitality and broader appeal.

Tell me how it is that memoir writers have become the early adopters of creative nonfiction and, as you say, have found new depth. Memoir has—like history—some imposed restrictions. Both are duty bound to the facts. And in memoir there’s the added constraint of a biased author telling her own story—the “unreliable narrator” Lopate speaks of. For some of its writers there has been an off-putting tendency toward self-indulgence that has tainted the genre. How is it recent memoirists have risen above these challenges?

I’m puzzled by that quote you gave from Lopate. He suggests the unreliable narrator, as an author point of view, is a device reserved for fiction—but what other option is possible in the writing of memoir?

Jeanette Taylor

p.s. What’s the latest with your long neglected manuscript?