I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.
—Gloria Swanson

In writing fiction we inevitably come to that moment that is lifted directly from our real life, but fidelity to real events can create a block in the rewrite. In an attempt to be faithful to the event, we can lose our connection to the truth of our story. The facts of the event are not enough — we must also provide our reader with context; what does this event mean in terms of the larger story? Sometimes we can have such an entrenched idea about what happened that we miss the essential nature of the incident. Our perception of the event can often limit our understanding of it.

The question to ask is, “What do I want to express through this event?” Seemingly important moments become suddenly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Aunt Maddy lives in a four-story Brooklyn walkup or the plains of Nebraska because what we’re really interested in is the nature of her prickly relationship with her husband, Uncle Petey, who runs a diner on the corner, or a cattle farm.

When we shoehorn real life events into our fictive world, it throws our story off the rails. It’s like when you download a file on your computer and it asks you to put it in a different format to make it readable. By distilling the event to its nature, our reader can be made to understand the nature of Aunt Maddy and Uncle Petey’s marriage, regardless of where the story is set.

A similar principle applies to memoir writing. Just because something happened in our life does not mean it necessarily deserves to be in the memoir. Memoir is not journaling. If we were to recount every blessed event that happened in our life, the story would never end. We’re interested in the nature of the events as they lead our protagonist to a new understanding. If the same beat is played throughout the story, we might want to choose one or two beats to illustrate the point, so that our reader does not endure endless repetition. What happens is less important than why it happens.


Notice where you’ve culled material from your real life and ask yourself what you’re attempting to express through the particular character or event. Distill it to its nature, and if the character or event isn’t fulfilling what you’ve set out to say, alter it to suit your purposes.