The big fiction advice is “Show, don’t tell,” but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead “Show and Tell.” It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, “Why aren’t you writing fiction?” Too much tell and, “I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.”

The narration is the thing that lets you do the other. Sometimes the equation is off. Take a  memoirist like Mary Karr, who I love, but a lot people who would say what I just said wouldn’t like her. Not a lot of analysis. Very narrative. But the language is so great, so fantastic. The sheer writerly ability is so great that we don’t care. We feel that a revelation of her generation is happening in that narration, and as a result her experience becomes historical even though she doesn’t go on about history. So it isn’t like a formula: “Make sure to have 30 percent of this followed by 30 percent of that.”

Now, there are some people who would criticize Mary Karr, “How could she remember all of this. She’s making this up.” And this brings up one of the other big questions about memoir, which has to do with veracity, as well as ethical and moral issues related to the genre, which are insoluble to my mind. I don’t know that we can ever resolve these issues because if we are working with consciousness itself, not with fact, we’re dealing with not what “happened” but with what “has happened.” That is to say not what happened out there—we all agree that happened—but rather something happened and then “I” reflect on it and perceive it, and I don’t just think about it, I actually constellate it as an act, which in narrative terms means that I change it. Now, conscious invention is a whole other thing. We sometimes run into that as a problem, too. . . .

Part of the excitement of this form is that we are living in the middle of deciding what it’s going to be and learning not only how to write it but how to read it. How do we read this form? We may have made a big mistake when we put memoir into that big, baggy category of nonfiction. Once we did that, we put it right next to the newspaper, and we pretty much all know what we want the newspaper to be. If they say, “George Bush dropped dead,” we don’t want to find out tomorrow that he’s alive, right? We want to think he’s gone. If we put those same exact strictures on memoir, if we think the rules are exactly the same, we’re going to be disappointed.

From River Teeth, Spring 2004, Vol. 5, No. 2


  • PH does have GREAT things to say about writing memoir. One thing is that memoir is revelation, not reminiscence. Kinda nails it. I do think memoir exists along a continuum from very “show” (reads like a novel) to very “tell” (reads like an essay) with a lot of gradations in between. “This Boy’s Life,” for example, reads almost entirely scenically with only a touch of reflection towards the end. The story speaks for itself. Maybe it depends on the story and the sensibility of the writer.

    Her second section above about dealing with consciousness is intriguing but a little convoluted in terms of “what happened” vs. “what has happened,” and how reflecting on facts changes them (if I have that right). I didn’t find that too clear, but these are difficult ideas to nail down.

  • Roberta Johnson says:

    I heard PH saying that “what happened” refers to the factual and that “what has happened” refers to the way reflection (in time and space) mediates the factual. I heard PH saying that “what has happened” becomes the author changed/modified/transformed/confused by the “what happened,” such that when we write memoir, we bring the factual experience as we have re-played it (thought about it/ reconsidered it/given it meaning)over time and in space. Okay, mayber I didn’t quite get it either. But I believe I did.

    • I like that distinction, Roberta. What I have found writing my own memoir and listening more carefully to the stories people tell is that our memories are not factual or literal. They’re mythic, poetic, Jungian—from the get-go. Memory is creative. This has led to me, personally, to consider memoir more a species of literature than an offshoot of journalism. Memoir is nonfiction, yes, but as I just implied, memory is a form of fiction . . .

      I think whole memoirs are based on this truth, and others acknowledge it overtly or implicitly with reflection on memory or by questioning it.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Once again, Richard, you provide memoir writers wonderful food for thought. I think those with exciting,externally dramatic stories may “show” more and not slow the story with too much “telling.” Those with quieter lives can still pull us in with skillful telling and with revelation. Probably the best revelation, however, happens to the reader as much as to the writer. It opens us up with a frisson of truth.

  • Verna Wilder says:

    Hi Richard,
    I just discovered your blog (through Beth at Switched at Birth) and have been happily reading, forgetting that I have a 10 AM appointment and will have to scramble to get there in time, but oh! couldn’t I sit here on my patio for just a bit longer and read some more? I feel like a kid whose parent is about to drag her away from the book she’s reading to do something that won’t be nearly as interesting. But I’ll be back!
    Thank you!

  • Beth Sears says:

    Richard, I love this balancing act that PH describes. I’ve personally gone from writing my memoir more like an essay to now having people tell me to consider writing fiction. One of these days I’ll find that perfect equilibrium I’m sure, and your thoughtful posts will have helped me in that journey.

  • Served says:

    Hi Richard,
    I lost track of a post on ‘shaping’ nonfiction narratives today. I noted that you had commented on it. Writer was quoting Gornick. Any ideas where that article was?
    Best, Christin

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