Genre Confusion: Memoir vs. Nonfiction Narrative

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I regularly hear writers, agents and even editors misidentify what they are talking about when the discussion turns to narrative nonfiction and memoir.

The word memoir has developed cache in today’s market, which has resulted in many industry professionals using it as a catch-all word to communicate a personal story. But, in actuality, memoir is a subcategory of narrative nonfiction.

Both narrative nonfiction and memoir share these qualities:Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

  • The manuscript is told as a story,
  • with characters (actual people),
  • a protagonist (generally the author or the subject of the book),
  • a character arc,
  • fleshed-out scenes,
  • and a story arc.

In other words, both memoir and narrative nonfiction use fiction techniques to put the reader into the moment of the story. Think Seabiscuit or Unbroken, both of which required immense research but are told as gripping stories. They are examples of narrative nonfiction.

Narrative nonfiction could tell a story as an objective, journalistic piece, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. A memoir would not take that approach but is subjective, based on the writer’s perspective of what happened.

A memoir consists of not only a factual story but also:

  • Generally is told in first person about an individual’s unique experience.
  • Is swathed in lavish language. Memoirs are expected to attain a certain literary quality. Which is why, when a standup comedian writes a “memoir,” it’s highly unlikely to qualify for that label. His or her book is more likely to be an autobiography. But we don’t use that label much nowadays because “memoirs” are more sought after.
  • Doesn’t usually tell the author’s entire life but instead portrays a snippet of it (the day the person happened to be in the twin towers and they fell down, then the aftermath in that person’s life).
  • Tend to be more introspective than other narrative nonfiction.

Two memoirs that come to mind are Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.The Glass Castle

If you’d like to check out Flavorwire’s opinion of the 10 best memoirs ever written, look here.

What’s your favorite narrative nonfiction and/or memoir?

Why might it be important to correctly label your manuscript?

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37 Responses

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  1. lisa says:

    I like to read narrative nonfiction and memoir. I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is one of my favorite memoirs. Just the title gives me goosebumps. I would love to do a journalist piece of narrative nonfiction someday.

    Thanks for showing the difference. I had to read up on all the different genres when I first started writing to make sure I was labeling mine correctly. It does make such a difference especially in querying and finding comparable work.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lisa, and isn’t Maya Angelou’s title indicative of such a wonderful work?
      It does make it hard to query or to find appropriate comparables if you’ve mislabeled your project.

  2. I loved Unbroken (I always want to say ‘Unspoken’) and in my humble opinion, Laura Hillenbrand could write a phone book and make me hold my breath til the end.
    The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom was a game changer for me. Both the book and the beautiful film held me at the precipice of my faith and and slapped me with conviction. And not the gentle “heyyyy, wakey,wakey” kind of slap. But the kind that holds eternity to my head and makes me choose.

    I have been in situations where guns were pointed at me, and some water cannons too. But that was a case of “wrong place, wrong time”.
    I have not had to choose between life and death. But Corrie ten Boom did, and God allowed her to shake generations from their slumber.
    And no, I don’t want to endure what she did, who does? But I want to have her kind of unwavering obedience.

    As for labeling manuscripts? That makes me think of the public reaction to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
    Be clear or people get hurt, angry or confused.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ah, The Hiding Place. Thanks for reminding us of that stellar work, Jennifer.
      I smiled at your example of the mislabeling of War of the Worlds. Of course, Orson Wells’s probably thought all that confusion was great fun.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    I appreciate how you delineated the difference between narrative NF and a memoir. One of the narrative NF books was Prisoners of Hope by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. I don’t know that it was the best written book ever, but the story gripped me. And reading how they came through their captivity in Afghanistan after 9/11 gave true hope.

  4. Lori says:

    I enjoyed Paula D’Arcy’s memoir “Gift of the Red Bird”. I’ve listened to it a couple of times. It is narrated by her. I also gave it as a book to my mother and she enjoyed it too.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lori, I’m not familiar with Gift of the Red Bird…wait, I think I heard something about it, but the specifics have escaped me. Could you tell us just a bit about the storyline?

      • Lori says:

        Back in 1975, a three month pregnant Paula D’Arcy, her husband and 22-month old daughter where in a car crash with a drunk driver. Her husband and daughter died and Paula survived to give birth to another daughter. Paula went on to a inner search for a faith that was stronger than fear. Years later she jouneys alone in the wilderness for three days which she feels was a blessed experience.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Lori, thanks for the book summary.

  5. I read Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” right after I lost my husband and she so eloquently expressed, and in heartfelt ways, the questions and experiences I was having. Her reference to expecting him to return and need his shoes that she couldn’t bring herself to give away really summed up that “I’ll just wait till he comes back” feeling that gets you through grief for awhile. To me, that was one of the best memoirs I’ve read. Reading Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place” was also pivotal to my faith experience. Thanks for the post about the differences between memoir and n-f narrative. It’s something I’ve been struggling with on a story I hope to tell.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Deb, The Year of Magical Thinking is so powerful; such an intense and honest portrayal of loss.
      I’m glad the blog post helped to clarify how to think about the story you have an urge to write.

  6. Jenny Leo says:

    My favorite narrative nonfiction author is Erik Larson. His “Devil in the White City” had me burning the midnight oil as much as any suspense novel.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jenny, it’s true, isn’t it, that a great narrative nonfiction story can carry us away as effectively as a suspense novel. Knowing that the nonfiction story is true makes it all the more exciting.

  7. Micky Wolf says:

    Definitely appreciate the clarity you bring to this topic, Janet. The way you describe the objective/subjective aspects of each, along with what they have in common, is truly helpful!

  8. Karla Akins says:

    The Glass Castle is so far my favorite Memoir. That book, that book.

  9. Karla Akins says:

    Okay, I misspoke. I love Corrie Ten Boom, too. I was referring to recently read memoirs. Caged Bird Sings is also amazing. I love memoirs as a general rule. I like reading about real people doing real things. I’ve written narrative non-fiction for middle grade and I concur with your delineation in this post.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Karla, I had forgotten about Corrie ten Boom’s story as well until I read others’ comments. Thanks for the affirmation about my delineation between memoir and narrative nonfiction.

  10. Thanks for the distinction between the two, Janet. I was actually curious why the term autobiography seems to have disappeared.

    James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is such a great piece of work that it was used in a college course I took on studying the conflict. I also loved John Lithgow’s memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education.

  11. Iola says:

    I like your distinction between a memoir and autobiography (and narrative non-fiction). I agree it’s an important distinction: I once saw a review where the reviewer referred to the book as a memoir and the author replied, saying it wasn’t: it was a biography (that she wrote, about herself). Oops.

    I’m not a big fan of memoir personally, but I did really enjoy Soul Friend by Jo-Anne Berthelsen – it’s the story of her relationship with Joy, her spiritual mentor for many years.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Iola, okay, so the author knew she hadn’t written a memoir but…we do embarrass ourselves in print sometimes. I like the title of Soul Friend; that sounds like a great book.

  12. Larry says:

    One of the more fascinating debates has always been the liberty of which historians, for example, balance prose narrative and the known / verifiable history they are discussing.

    Of course, the earliest historians often used “creative narrative”, to put it mildly, in describing the words and deeds of the people, places, and eras they spoke of, so I for one do not mind a bit of creative liberty if it makes history all the more approachable to the public.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Larry, apparently Truman Capote used creative narrative when writing In Cold Blood. If someone gave Capote access to documents no other journalists saw, that person was portrayed in the book in most becoming terms. If you weren’t helpful to Capote, he portrayed you as fumbling, inept and unattractive. Ah, the power of the pen.

  13. pattisj says:

    Thank you for clarifying the differences between narrative nonfiction and memoir.
    I recently read God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew.

  14. Marti Pieper says:

    I’m entering what may be a dead discussion, but I appreciate and agree with the distinctions you set forth, Janet. When I teach on writing memoir, I recommend both “The Glass Castle” (the first paragraph alone is worth the price of the book) and “Angela’s Ashes” along with “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And who can forget “Same Kind of Different as Me”(Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent)? Another must-read is William Zinsser’s brilliant “Writing About Your Life,” a how-to and memoir in one. Thanks for the explanation. (“Unbroken” is at the top of my read-next list, by the way.)

  15. shani says:

    At what point does memoir become narrative non-fiction? If research is conducted: interviews, files, news clippings and photographs that provides significant information unknown at the time of the event — Does the story become narrative non-fiction?

    And, should an unpublished author use the historic “creative narrative” genre in a query letter?

    • Janet Grant says:

      shani, the research in and of itself would not necessarily shift the manuscript into narrative nonfiction, if the other aspects of memoir are true of the work. “Creative narrative” is one way of skirting the dilemma between memoir and narrative nonfiction, but the term isn’t used a lot so you’re better off choosing between the two other options, if you can do so accurately.

  16. wally povajnuk says:

    I am writing a life story.the reader can label it as he or she desires

  17. Olin Fregia says:

    Ms. Grant, I have finished a manuscript that is either a memoir or a narrative-non fiction. It is a true story written in first person. It is not my story. Trying to figure out how to label and market it (book proposal or not). Help. Olin