Memoir vs Creative Nonfiction: Can You Tell the Difference?

WritingAs a writer, understanding all the different genres and their sub-genres and their sub-sub-genres gets overwhelming. Where does the line between dark fantasy and horror cross? What’s the difference between mystery and thrillers or thrillers and horrors? Tagging the right genre is paramount to sales. We all know this, and yet we still struggle to tag our work properly.

I have noticed that many writers confuse memoir and creative nonfiction (or narrative nonfiction). Memoir is the more popular term but there are differences between memoir and creative nonfiction, and mislabeling them can cause your story continued rejection.

 

Memoir vs. Creative nonfiction

Both creative nonfiction and memoir share these qualities with fiction:

  • the manuscript tells a story
  • has characters (real people)
  • a protagonist (usually the author of the story)
  • a character arc
  • fleshed out scenes
  • story arc

 

Both forms use fiction elements to bring the reader into the story rather than an objective, journalistic piece (which is narrative nonfiction). Memoir tends to be subjective, written from writer’s perspective of what happened. In fact, you can pick out the memoir from the creative nonfiction by looking beyond the factual story.

This, not that

  • is it told in the first person (which memoir ALWAYS should be)?
  • is it descriptive, taking more of a literary approach with description and scene setting? does it draw the reader into the story like a work of fiction?
  • is it just a portion of a person’s life, an event that happened and the aftermath?
  • is it more introspective than other nonfiction like a biography or narrative fiction?
  • is it based on personal experience or is it researched?

Creative nonfiction on the other hand is a combination of literary art and fiction and research nonfiction. It is writing that is filled with facts while still setting the scene, character development, and etc. that do not come into play in regular nonfiction. It can be as experimental as fiction while bathed in facts. Creative nonfiction also does not have to come from an event or experience in the writer’s life. A memoir is always based on the writer’s POV—how they saw the event they are writing about. Creative nonfiction is observed, recorded moments that shape the story, with sensory details that show versus tell. Creative nonfiction, like memoir, should bring the reader in the story in a way nonfiction does not.

Our memories have a way of forgetting the little details, like the color of the vest on the newly… Click To Tweet

Memoir allows for more creative freedom than nonfiction does. Our memories have a way of forgetting the little details, like the color of the vest on the newly found teddy bear from childhood. Memoir allows us to make that vest any color we want it to be, because the facts of the story aren’t changed, but the details are defined. Here are some examples. Can you guess which is which?

Examples:

“Each day, seven days a week (for the past 20 years), I climb out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and am at work at my desk within 30 minutes. I can get a lot done when the phone doesn’t ring and the horns don’t honk. When I get jammed up with work, I have learned to push the time back—I get up earlier. When you are on my kind of schedule, it doesn’t matter if you awaken at 4:30 a.m. or 3:45 a.m. Obviously, you might have to go to sleep earlier, but five hours a night is more than enough for my needs. As I said, all successful writers will write on a regular schedule and in a disciplined way. But creative nonfiction requires an even more focused discipline because we are not only writers but also reporters and researchers who utilize literary techniques to capture and portray real life and to investigate significant moral and cultural issues.” from The Rope Test

Or…

“Without a word, I went up and switched on the TV. The boys cheered and clapped their hands, and immediately the charged atmosphere from the sports village in Tokyo was transported to the lab. My boys started cheering all the athletes as they were introduced at the starting point. We knew that we were about to see excellent sports.

It was at that particular instant that the boy who suggested this whole thing once again raised his hand and asked permission to go to the toilet.

“But the event is about to start Izhar, and its the 100m finals,” I said. “Do you really have to go now?”. I just couldnt believe he had to go at that very moment.

“I’ll be very,very fast, teacher,” he answered, jumping frantically. I could see he really needed to go. No sooner had I nodded my permission, Izhar was alaready making his own 100m sprint to the toilet nearby.

I was worried for Izhar. I mean, how long does it take for those international sprinters to run a 100m race? Could Izhar make it in time? After all, it was he who wanted to watch the event in the first place.” from The Ten Second Lesson

 

I know the answers, do you?

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Stephanie Ayers

Executive Creative Director at Our Write Side/OWS Ink, LLC
A published author with a knack for twisted tales, Stephanie Ayers is the Executive Creative Director of OWS Ink, LLC, a community for writers and readers alike. She loves a good thriller, fairies, things that go bump in the night, and sappy stories. When she is not writing, she can be found in Creative Cloud designing book covers and promotional graphics for authors.
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