Guest, Elisa Lorello, blogs about Fiction and Memoir

Elisa Lorello
A lesson in memoir

First of all, thank you so much, Brenda, for hosting me so soon after your website launch. Brenda and I met through the Raleigh Write2Publish group, and she is the perfect example of the kind of generosity that so many writers extend to one another and that I try to practice as well.

First, a word about FAKING IT. This is my first novel about Andi, a 30-something writing professor, who meets Devin, a handsome, charming escort who catches her attention. She proposes an unusual arrangement: lessons in writing in exchange for lessons in how to be a better lover. When the two break the rules of their contract that forbids each other from seeing each other socially and become friends, problems ensue. A romantic comedy, FAKING IT is best described as When Harry Met Sally meets Sex and the City.  It's witty and fun, but also poignant at times.

Before I started writing novels, I considered my strength to be creative nonfiction—namely, memoir: recalling personal experience and telling a story about it. I used to teach the genre to my freshman classes at UMass Dartmouth and University of Rhode Island. For the majority of students, it was their favorite assignment, the paper of which they were most proud. Using John Trimbur's textbook The Call to Write, I would teach them characteristics of memoir (the following are paraphrased from The Call to Write):

  • The memoirist is both the observer and the participant.
  • The memoirist seeks to not only re-create the experience, but to convey meaning from it. They are taking the experience from one context and placing it into a new one with new understanding.
  • The memoirist is not aiming for sentimentality or self-indulgence but rather to make personal experience significant for others.  
  • The memoirist risks vulnerability to judgment from others as the result of self-disclosure.
  • The ultimate goal is "not only to establish a connection to the past and to inform and entertain readers about the past but also from a sense of responsibility to the past, from a desire to bear witness to things that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten." Thus, the extraordinary transcends the ordinary.

The key to memoir, then, is the moment of revelation. The moment is brought to the surface by developing the following (also from The Call to Write):

  • Setting the scene
  • Sensory description of people, places, and objects
  • Dialogue
  • Action

Sounds a lot like fiction, doesn't it?

In many ways, it is. After all, you want to hook your readers in and take them along for the ride. These were all things I kept in mind as I wrote FAKING IT and my other novels. But I think the difference between writing fiction and writing memoir is this: fiction answers the what-if question; memoir answers "what was the significance of this?"

In FAKING IT, Andi assigns Devin the task of writing a memoir, and through it we develop a much deeper understanding about who Devin is. Andi is a self-proclaimed memoirist; and yet, I love the irony of that. I ask her (yes, I talk to my characters) what she writes about given that she hides so much of herself and her past from others. My guess is that she writes about those things most dear to her: her brothers. her students. her surroundings; and acts primarily as a witness to their experiences as she seeks to make meaning of her place in those experiences. As she progresses in her tutorials with Devin, snippets of repressed memories surface, and my guess is that by the end of the book she is far more true to her craft than at the beginning.

I believe that one of the goals in fiction is to tell a truth that needs to be told. Explore a truth that needs to be explored. The truth may be personal, but the story may not. One of my twin brother's favorite writing stories is about an incident in which literary author Theodore Strurgeon was outraged by the McCarthy hearings and wanted to write about it. But every time he tried, the words didn't seem to come. After he confided to a close friend about both his anger and his writer's block, the friend answered, "Write a story about a guy who finds out that his wife has been cheating on him. Once you do, the whole world will know exactly how you feel about Joe McCarthy."

Writers are called to write for various reasons. When they are, it's up to them to make those choices that will best serve the call, their purpose. Do I write fiction or non? Do I tell the truth this way or that way? Do I write for this audience or that audience? Do I use this word or that word? Am I willing to be vulnerable? Am I willing to make others vulnerable? And so on.

When faced with a story, experience, or event, and a truth, it's up to you to decide whether you want to fictionalize it or write a memoir. Either way, you must serve your call.

FAKING IT is currently available at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, NC; Baker Books in N. Dartmouth, MA;; and available on Amazon Kindle.

updated: 7 years ago