Writing a memoir might be considered a waste of time by some amateur writers if they aren’t all that well known. That’s going to depend on what the writer’s philosophy is on how meaningful a memoir really is. Are they doing it as some kind of therapy to get their life story into a tangible form? Perhaps they’re doing it strictly as a gift to their kids or grandchildren so they’ll know the truth about what happened in the writer’s life to avoid rumoring. But as the bible once quoted: “What is truth?”
Telling the truth in a memoir can be a dangerous thing nowadays, even if it’s overly fashionable for celebrities to get everything off their chest, sometimes literally. Despite some of those truths setting people free, it can also hurt reputations and set a different view of who you are for generations to come. Other times, perhaps your life isn’t quite as interesting and you’ve had to pad up your memoir with things that might not come anywhere near the real truth.
In that regard, your memoir might work better as a novel rather than as a straight autobiography. What things should you consider if you decide to go this route and use the old standby phrase of being “based on a true story?”
How Much Fiction Do You Have in Your Memoir?
Every high-profile memoir is going to have stories that are probably a bit apocryphal. Publishers may not even care nowadays, especially if it’s from someone who’s been in the limelight for decades who previously hadn’t addressed numerous rumors. For someone considerably less famous, it can be almost the same for the sake of sexing things up for entertainment value. They may also have a sense of guilt about being a little far on the fiction side of things than the real truth. And that may be only because the real truth is considerably more ordinary than anything overly exciting.
If you can cobble together a relatable story with exciting fictional twists and turns, you may have an excellent plot for a novel that you can say is semi-autobiographical. How many bestselling novels have we seen that didn’t come from some element of the author’s own life? While some writers deny their fiction projects have elements of their own life, it should be almost expected when complete stories can’t be written well without real-life experiences.
How Personally Hurtful is Your Memoir?
Bashing other people has become a standard practice in many modern-day autobiographies from notables. If this can bring some laughs and entertainment value if done in a witty way, a celebrity might be able to get away with it if they already have a circle of understanding friends. For someone less famous, it could mean revealing things that could negatively change their relationship with their family or friends.
In that regard, you may want to go the fictional route again and rename the people you bash or make look bad. Even if some people can frequently scope out the person behind the veneer of a character name, it can create more intrigue and debate that helps sell books if those characters are based on people the public knows.
Your Memoir Tells the Story of Someone Else
It’s possible that you remember something incredible happening to someone else who became your friend. That person’s story may have been so amazing that you fear it’ll be lost once they pass away. If they do die, it might look crass to write a memoir for them in your own voice. You may want to take that story and cloak it through a novel instead. In the intro, you might want to mention that it’s based on a true story from a friend.
By doing the above, you could open yourself up to that person’s family members demanding compensation for the sales of your book. So trend cautiously here, even if sharing profits would be the conscientious thing to do.
But is it Still a Memoir if it Can Benefit People?
If your story would directly benefit people and help inspire them to be a better person, it’s possible that some fiction wouldn’t hurt. We’ve certainly seen our share of autobiographies published that had dubious information, yet helped people cope easier with a major problem. The best example is “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey that caused uproar when it was discovered his tale of rising from dealing with drug and alcohol abuse was only partially true.
Much like placebos in our culture, having a partially true autobiography that inspires people to improve their lives doesn’t necessarily skirt the lines of ethicality.