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Non Fictional Prose: Memoir as Narrative?

AyaSeaver's picture

 I think that in our first weeks in Non-Fictional Prose we’ve achieved a great breadth and I’d like to take that breadth and narrow in on one area to examine the particulars of its nonfiction form. I want to further explore the memoir especially memoirs written by writers who also work in fiction.  These are my ideas, but really they could be dragged in any direction…


Week 1:  Moments of Being – Virginia Woolf’s

Woolf’s collection of memoir essays—collected after her death—is a seminal piece of literature and theory. It would be interesting to compare an artist we consider connected to the aspect of creation and read something that is not such much constructed from her life as revealed from it.


Week 2: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

     I’m wondering how Dillard’s attitudes toward childhood, invention, memory and imagination will play with Woolf’s. Her memoir also, might be constructed differently since she published and collected it during her life time and Woolf’s was gathered after her death.



Week 2: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Capote’s work often skirts the borders of fiction and non-fiction. In Cold Blood is at once a work of journalistic non-fiction, and a narrative that relies intensely on his memory and the memory of those he interviewed. Capote apparently called it a “non-fiction novel” some writers and critics theorized that most of it was fabrication. Does it feel like a novel, or a memoir? What’s the difference in prose either way?


Week 3: Night by Elie Wiesel

I think when we deal with memoir we’re always dealing with the reconstruction of events and facts. As a genre Holocaust memoirs have faced some of the most scrutiny over the years for their factual accuracy and artistry. Night has an interesting place in the literary canon and also the literary time line. We could do some outside reading (probably mostly online), or at least discussion, of to what level history is written- rewritten reconceived and what does that mean for ‘non-fiction’, a genre rooted in the ‘real’.

I poked around and Wiesel also seems to have said some interesting things about writing the novel, was it art or fact? Do we tell real stories or true stories, so I think there’s some perspective there to get to.


Week 4: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

I haven’t heard as much about this book but Nabokov is well known for his literary works of invention. That he also traveled over to memoir makes me curious. The book also underwent editing and different editions, he worked apparently from memory only and so some of the facts had to be corrected over the years as information surfaced.

What I’m hoping is that there will be some basic differences or correlations between the different structures of narrative in these books. Whether it’s their treatment of narrative authority or memory, but I don’t know because I haven’t read most of them. But that writers like Nabokov and Woolf who constructed narrators who didn’t know everything or who lied would sit down and tell ‘their own’ history seems interesting. Especially when compared to Capote telling other people’s history, or Wiesel telling the history of a traumatic experience.



Week 6: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

   Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is the kind of story that no one could event. She loses her husband a few days after her daughter slips into shock and unconsciousness from a terrible bout with pneumonia. A lot of the tragedies that occur throughout her story—or kept on occurring after she was finished with the piece—are well documented and public knowledge. After she wrote the book her daughter—who is ill throughout the text—died and so when adapting the work for the stage (Vanessa Redgrave performed the one woman show) she had to take into account the altering of reality to alter her text. The play is also available on Amazon, so a comparison might also be interesting.


There are a lot of questions here depending on where people want to go. Maybe there are some scientific texts about memory to read along with one of two of these, or more first person accounts of trauma like Night. I think there are also a lot of interesting issues, from the challenges and similarities present when we read a memoir with the knowledge that the writer is a published novelist. Is there more or less trust? What kind of writing do we expect? Who has the narrative authority to tell these real stories as opposed to the fictional ones?



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