Narrative Nonfiction vs. Memoir

Janet Barrett graced the veterans’ writing workshop with her presence last week. Someone asked her about the difference between narrative nonfiction and memoir.

Here’s what Janet had to say: “As to memoir vs. narrative non-fiction, I believe they can overlap. I’m thinking of Susan Orlean’s “Rin Tin Tin,” that certainly has a lot of both. What narrative non-fiction gives is the license to be as readable as popular fiction, yet weave in a lot of supporting material.  I liken it to driving down the main drag  (the central plot), and turning left and right down side roads from time to time.”

firstThe simple difference is that narrative nonfiction concerns the lives of others; memoir concerns the author’s life. So my first book, Can Anything Beat White?,was narrative nonfiction because it concerned the lives of my great-grandparents and their children. My second, At Home Inside was memoir because it concerned my relationship with my mother.

secondGreat examples of narrative nonfiction are Unbroken and Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand applies fiction technique to factual stories, so there is a plot, setting(s), character development, conflict. As Janet Barrett observed, Sebastian Junger does the same with The Perfect Storm. Junger appears briefly, but his narrative includes all the elements of great fiction, except that the story is painfully true.

Memoir may contain elements of fiction as well but often also involves a more limited scope. Ellen Gilchrist’s The Writing Life contains descriptions of a great many books, but she writes about them all in the context of her personal reaction to the text or to the writer. She includes journal entries about the writing classes she teaches, letters to her students, and essays. Here’s a sample opening paragraph, from the essay entitled “How I got Stronger and Smarter instead of Stupider and Sadder”: “As I approached the age of forty, four things happened that changed my life dramatically. I went into psychotherapy. I stopped drinking. I ran a marathon, and I started writing again for the first time in seven years.” She’s set up give her readers an eight-page “Alice down the rabbit hole” sort of view of a small part of her life. By the time one is finished, one cannot chart the arc of her life, nor even say much about many of the other people in it. This is memoir at its most refined.

After I wrote the above I came across a great video snippet in which the lecturer says that memoir involves a personal story plus time and reflection, meaning that the person has some distance to gain perspective over the subject matter. .

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