A memoir is like a moment in time. A memory. Something important that happened to each one of us in the past. It may be an event that changed our perspectives on the world, moments where our lives changed, or an experience that taught us an important lesson. Is a memoir nonfiction? From this aspect, the answer would be “yes” because you are relating experiences that happened to you or experiences that someone directly told you about.
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A memoir is also like a personal perspective. They are stories which are told through the eyes of the person who lived through the experience. Because each person experiences life based on their own beliefs, experiences, and perspectives, two people can witness the same event and remember it in very different ways. From this aspect, a memoir can also feel like it is a work of fiction.
So which is it? Are memoirs really nonfiction?
Yes. Memoirs Are Definitely Nonfiction.
The reason why memoirs are classified as nonfiction is because they are being presented as facts by the author of them. If those facts are not made as accurate as possible on purpose by the writer, then the story would be classified as a “fictional memoir.” The first is based on facts. The second is based on ideas or concepts.
Now that doesn’t mean every single fact in a memoir must be 100% accurate. The goal is to strive for the highest percentage of accuracy possible while bringing the facts presented to a single thesis or key point that is trying to be made.
James Herriot, who wrote several memoirs about his life as a rural veterinarian, had this goal for the facts presented in each story.
“I hope to make people realize how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs.”
This is what memoirs need in order to succeed. Having random memories placed into a story is like viewing the scrapbook of a stranger. The facts presented to the reader make no sense unless there is a theme woven into them. Even if only one extended memoir is being offered instead of several short stories, it must have a theme – a lesson learned – for it to work.
That lesson must be presented through facts. Actual events that happened through the eyes of the writer. And that is why memoirs are nonfiction.
Why Is a Fictional Memoir Still Considered a “Memoir” Then?
Fictional memoirs still focus on an actual time, event, or story that happened in the life of a writer. The only difference is that some of the details from that memoir are changed for some reason. If the writer is discussing what life was like for them living in San Francisco in the 1980s, but the memoir places the setting of these events in Seattle, then the memoir shifts from nonfiction to fiction.
There are some common reasons why a writer might choose to use the fictional memoir technique instead of the nonfiction memoir. They may wish to protect the identities of some people involved in the story, so they change their names. Or they change the location of the story. They might change the names of the businesses they are talking about.
Ultimately the goal of a fictional memoir tends to be about protection. Now this doesn’t mean that those who are discussed in the memoir aren’t going to realize that a writer is talking about them, even if the names have changed. For this reason, most memoir writers discuss what they intend to write with those who are involved.
Is a Nonfiction Memoir the Correct Type of Piece to Write?
Then there’s the fact that sometimes a fictional story is more powerful than one that is nonfiction. Fiction can safely explore worlds, concepts, and ideas that may be difficult for some [such as the idea of allowing transgender bathroom choice] without making it feel like the writing is a personal attack against them. In nonfiction, because there are personal facts being presented, that safety net is no longer in place.
So is a memoir nonfiction? Yes – most of them tend to be. If not, then they tend to be a fictional memoir because of changes to times, events, people, or places. These are separated from fake memoirs, which are completely fictional, because the other two options are always, in some way, based on personal facts.
Knowing the difference can help you make sure you can understand what type of story you are reading or writing.