Suspend Your Disbelief

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Real Life: Novel or Memoir?

The latest installment of the L.A. Times’s Off the Shelf series features an essay by writer Maud Newton on why she’s writing a novel instead of a memoir. Newton describes how, as an adolescent, she always thought she’d write a tell-all True Story:

Pre-teen novels were my frame of reference. I envisaged a story in the downbeat, questioning vein of “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” or “My Darling, My Hamburger.” But unlike those books, mine would be true, and, because I could not see beyond the sphere of my own unhappiness, it would be called, “And You Think Your Family is Crazy.” I shudder to think of it now.

I guess it’s not surprising, in the Oprah era, that so many other people had the same idea. Nowadays bookstores are overrun with narratives that could be sold under exactly the title that so appealed to my adolescent self.

But as she began to write more, Newton began to see that fiction offered her a different way to write about her experiences:

At 19, at the University of Florida, I took a fiction class from the formidable Harry Crews. When Crews handed back an inchoate story I’d lamely based on my father, I could feel his scorn radiating off the paper. “The creation of a monster is not the creation of fiction,” he’d written, in all caps.

Crews taught me that an event doesn’t make for a resonant story merely because it’s weird and bad and actually happened; he helped me to see that the books I love most–such as Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”–are powerful and moving because the author breathed life into them with words and hard work and imagination.

– Read a memoir by Maud Newton–and her novel excerpt that won the Narrative Prize.

– In these FWR interviews, we asked novelists to talk about taking material from life:

– More on Fiction vs. Memoir:

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