Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story

As the novel consultant, I am often asked how a writer should tell his or her story. I work with clients in both novel and memoir, using similar structural techniques to develop a compelling story. I truly believe that both forms are ideal ways in which to tell your personal story. The choice is up to you.

Whatamotherknows LEHRauthorphotoThis guest post is by Leslie Lehr who is a manuscript consultant and the prizewinning author of six books, including her literary thriller, What A Mother Knows. She speaks at conferences from New Orleans to Newport Beach and teaches at the Writers Program at UCLA as well as for Truby Writers Studio. Leslie has been subscribing to Writers Digest for 25 years and considers it her go-to source for writing tips. For more, go to

Only recently did I realize that my genre jumping work was proof of this. During a conference interview, Mary Manzel, Director of the California Center for the Book, asked what would develop from my NY Times Modern Love essay. She had read all of my books, essays and scripts – my entire ouvre. I hadn’t realized I had one, until she pointed out a pattern. Beginning with Welcome to Club Mom, a nonfiction book, “I Hate Everybody”, an essay for the infamous Mommy Wars, and my recent literary thriller, What A Mother Knows, I’ve been exploring the challenges of modern motherhood for twenty years.

Essentially, she tapped into my method of using creative nonfiction as a springboard for fiction. To be honest, I have written a memoir, but it was painful for family members, so I put it in a drawer. I never regretted it, because I fictionalized some of the important themes in my next novel. In fact, when I faced mortality recently, I could honestly say that I would be satisfied if What A Mother Knows was my last book. Here’s why: all the important ideas I have about love are woven into this literary thriller. Go figure!

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If you are torn between memoir and novel, here are eight advantages of each:


Since every element is designed to express an emotional truth…..

  1. It may be easier emotionally to write.
  2. You don’t have to remember everything that really happened.
  3. You can rewrite history.
  4. You can include events you did not witness.
  5. You can protect yourself and others.
  6. You can create a more vivid story.
  7. You can explore personal issues on a larger framework.
  8. You can create characters and events, expand real ones, and magnify themes.


Since every event is revealed to express the true emotion…

  1. You can explore the real truth behind what happened.
  2. You may find it easier to tell a real story than to make one up.
  3. The writing can be a prompt and profound understanding of your life.
  4. You can frame the story dramatically to focus on a particular theme.
  5. You can shape the story by expanding or compressing time.
  6. You can use more internal narrative to reflect on events.
  7. The story may gain meaning as time passes.
  8. You can write about one event now and write more memoirs later.

If you’re wondering whether to tell you story in memoir or novel form, there is no wrong answer. The choice is up to you!

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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4 thoughts on “Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story

  1. JanelleFila

    I love how you differentiated the two concepts as an “emotional truth” and “true emotion.” I love creative non-fiction and often read books like THE GLASS CASTLE to know other people’s lives are more messed up than my own! I admired Jeannette Wall’s courage to share her story. As a writer, I knew I could never put my secrets on the page like that.

    So instead, I write YA Contemporary and fictionalize the traumas I experience in high school! To this day my mother can’t read my work because it is too real for her. Even though it is fiction, she sees the hurt that I experienced poured into my characters’ lives. I hope by writing about the emotions and feelings I experienced, that I can help other young people liver fuller, richer lives. Janelle


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