Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blurring the Lines: Fiction vs. Memoir

Have you guys ever written a story that borrows details or experiences from your real life?  I've done this a few times, but mostly for settings.  I wrote a short story that takes place in Africa, and since I'd been to Africa, I used details about the place I stayed to re-create the setting for my character.

No big deal, right?  Right.

But in my new book, I'm going deeper.  I'm using more than a setting--I'm using a lot of detail about my life, my family, the town I was born and raised in.  Of course, this leads to a dilemma.  What's better for fiction....the verisimilitude of details I know to be true, or the flair of details I'm making up as I go?

Let's look at the problem from both angles.

In the red corner, arguing against using personal experiences:
*Real life isn't art.  Fiction is art.  Devote yourself to art to take full advantage of the medium itself.
*You could get sued if you don't differentiate your characters enough from the real people who inspired them.
*At least in my life, the characters I make up are probably more interesting.  (My family is very white-picket-fence.)
*What's the challenge in writing about stuff that actually happened?  Isn't that journalism or memoir?

In the blue corner, arguing for using personal experiences:
*Using real-life details can't help but give the story a true-to-life feel.  The details will feel real because they are real.
*Writing about people who are, essentially, my family members makes it easier to focus on plot and language.  The characterizations are done for me.
*Remember in Little Women, when Jo wrote trashy Ivanhoe-style stories about things she knew nothing about and they only got rejected, and then she wrote her own story, the story about herself and her sisters, and it was amazing?

So what do you think?  What do you do when it's time to write?  Do you use your memories and experiences as a source, or do you push them away and dive into the unknown?