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Memoir vs. Novel: A Writer’s Perspective

Memoir vs. Novel: A Writer’s Perspective

A Session with Marcia Gloster

My first book, 31 Days: A Memoir of Seduction, is the story of a specific time and place in my life. As a memoir, its perspective is mine, encompassing my perceptions and emotions. It was both revelatory and cathartic, and in writing it I rediscovered myself. As Tobias Wolff wrote in the introduction to This Boy’s Life, “Memory has its own story to tell.”

When writing a memoir, one knows, and has actually lived, the entire story from the first page to the last. Although my new book is a novel, I know much of this story as well; it’s based on several years of my early life in New York in the 1960s, a time of great change and social upheaval. The central character is a young woman in the testosterone-dominated world of advertising who is determined to become successful on her own terms. Although driven to succeed, she makes a questionable decision that leads to a complicated, often humiliating affair and eventual marriage.

31 DaysSo why write a story based on real relationships and actual experiences as fiction rather than memoir? In writing 31 Days, there were times when I sorely wished to convey what the other characters were thinking. But in memoir, as in life, we can never truly know another person’s thoughts. All we can know is what is communicated through actions and conversation, which we, as writers, then translate into description and dialog. The wonderful world of fiction lifts those restrictions.

For many years I’ve wanted to write a story involving two main characters: their experiences, interactions, their pleasure, pain and conflicts. But, more than that, what I really sought was to burrow into their minds. The novel form gives me the chance to do that; I am now free to construct the behavior, responses, and innermost thoughts of each character within their individual and separate day-to-day worlds. As we are all aware, what we experience and what we communicate to one another about those experiences may be drastically different. What it comes down to is that I wanted to write about the truths and lies we tell, not only to one another, but to ourselves as well.

The following scene, from my new novel “I Love You Today” is told first by Maddie and then by Rob. Maddie’s story is an actual moment that happened in my life. Rob’s views on it are, of necessity, fiction:

Maddie gratefully breathed in the cold air, expecting Rob to say goodnight and take the next taxi that came along to Grand Central. But he grabbed her hand, saying he wanted to get a hamburger at Willie’s, another bar a couple of blocks away.

Willie’s, however, had closed early for the holiday, and they walked down Third Avenue finding only a Chinese restaurant still open. The waiter said they were also about to close but he would let them take out whatever they wanted. All Maddie wanted was to go home; she no longer cared if she ate or not. She’d had far too much to drink and was trying her best to remain lucid. Rob, who had drunk far more than she, appeared to be just fine and ordered a few things from the menu. She had a Coke while they waited and asked him about the next train to Darien. He assured her there was still time. Taking the bag of Chinese food, he steered her down Third to Seventy-Second Street, turning left toward her apartment building halfway down the block.

They sat at her small dining table drinking, eating, and laughing about the rugby bar. She watched him, liking his easy smile and becoming comfortable talking with him. She warned herself not to get too comfortable.

Glancing at her watch, she said, “Rob, it’s almost one. Are you sure the trains are still running?”

He smiled. “I just missed the last one.”

She sat back, incredulous. “What? Well, you can’t stay here.”

“Why not?”

She couldn’t believe he was still smiling. Then she realized he wasn’t taking her seriously. “Because I’m not going to sleep with you, that’s why. You’re married and you’re my boss. Isn’t that enough?” She crossed her arms and stared at him.

“You’re really serious, aren’t you?” he asked, looking at her as though he couldn’t believe what she was saying.

“Yes, Rob. I have no intention of getting involved with you.”

“We don’t have to get involved,” he said with a grin.

She shook her head. “Oh come on. You know what I mean.”

“All right, Maddie. If you’re really sure about this I’ll try and rent a car. Do you have a Yellow Pages?”

She was suddenly more alert. “Yes. I’ll get it. It’s on the top shelf on the closet, but I don’t think I can reach it.”

He got up reluctantly, his good mood having clearly vanished. She stood next to him as he reached for the phone book. When he looked down at her, she caught her breath and almost gave in; he was too attractive, too seductive. And she was about to pass this up? It would have been so easy. But sleeping with her married boss was a Pandora’s Box not to be opened.

Rob sat on the couch and irritably dialed several rental car agencies. They all told him the same thing: there was not a rental car to be had in Manhattan until Friday at the earliest. He shrugged and said he’d call a couple of his unmarried photographer friends; perhaps he could stay with one of them. Neither of them were home and he left messages with their answering services to call back.

Maddie shook her head in frustration. She couldn’t exactly throw him out. She pointed to the couch.

“No. I don’t sleep on couches,” he said, getting up. They faced one another and then he laughed. She did as well; it was a ludicrous situation.

“Okay, Rob. You can sleep in bed with me – but no sex. Agreed?”

“Fine Maddie. Whatever you say.” She wondered if she’d still have a job next week. She was sure no woman had ever turned him down.

Here is the same scene from Rob’s point of view:

He shouldn’t have let his dick overtake his brain, but by the time they got out of there, he pretty much knew he wasn’t going home. He wasn’t sorry that Willie’s was closed, although they had great bacon cheeseburgers. But he lucked out with the Chinese place; it gave him the perfect excuse to go home with her. He had thought everything was going great until she blindsided him by saying she wouldn’t go to bed with him. At first, he thought she was kidding. Once he was in a girl’s apartment, sex was a no-brainer. He understood her apprehension about sleeping with a married man and especially, as she said, her boss. Hard to argue with that; a sure recipe for trouble. But he was beyond caring; she had become a challenge.

By the time they got to the bedroom and she came out in that silly nightgown he was pretty much resigned to his first-ever failure. Yet somehow it made him desire her even more. I have to remember to thank Hal for calling back at three in the morning. Otherwise I would have left there hung over and horny – a night truly wasted.

But it hadn’t been wasted; far from it. After the phone call, he had gone for it one more time – one more kiss. He had thought that under that proper exterior she might be timid, even inhibited. At first he thought she was, but after he surprised her with that kiss, he knew he had her.

You may ask yourself, why bother with taking any or part of the story from reality. It’s your choice. In this example I tell Maddie’s part based on my own reactions to a rather special situation. Rob’s responses, as I recall, are close to reality but his innermost thoughts are definitely fictional. For me this has created a fascinating balance between my own experiences and my imagination.

Research required

Since I’m a woman writing about a man’s most hidden thoughts – a very dominant man at that – I decided I couldn’t do it entirely on my own. Fiction authors naturally place thoughts in the minds of their characters of the opposite, or whatever, sex; it’s part of the process. But I needed to go further and deeper. In lieu of a male co-writer or trying to research what psychologists might say about a given situation, I went about it in a different way: I asked several men with similar traits to Rob to read and honestly critique not only his thoughts, but his actions and reactions, his emotions, his truths, and more importantly, his lies. Their input was uniquely informative. I’m perfectly aware that men’s minds work differently than women’s, and although I thought I had most of it right, I was surprised by many of the revealing comments I received. It’s been a tremendous learning experience.

But the two main characters are only part of it. I wanted to portray them as twenty-somethings emerging from the restrictive conventionality of the 1950s into the wildly transitional time in which they were suddenly living. Even though I lived and worked during those years, my memories often felt incomplete. I turned to Google – my ever-faithful research tool while writing 31 Days – to help retrieve details that would offer verisimilitude.

Re: 31 Days. At the beginning, I was sure I had the whole story. After all, it was I who lived it; what more could I possibly need. Although I kept a journal all those years ago, I quickly discovered that I required more information, mostly of vaguely remembered places and events that surrounded the core story. My research began with Google and extended to three trips to Europe to meet with several people who were an essential part of that summer.

In my new book, I once again wanted to take real places and events and weave them into the lives of my characters. While events (time, place) are easy to locate, people and locations such as restaurants or buildings may no longer exist. You may ask why bother to look for something when you can easily make it up. In my case, taking off from something real (i.e., a memory) creates a richer writing experience. If I can visualize it and feel it, I can use it to enhance the scene.

An example: there was a trendy restaurant I wanted to find in London. Although I didn’t recall the name or where it was located, I could picture it vaguely. This was in 1969 – long before the digital age, and the place was long gone. I could have left well alone, but something nudged me to look for it. Although I was sure it was a waste of time, I nevertheless kept following what appeared to be increasingly obscure links until I found an article about Michael Caine and some restaurateur I never heard of. With little hope, I skimmed the article and there, in the middle of it, was a mention of the restaurant. Once I saw the name, the entire scene unfolded in sounds and images in my memory, giving me a far more detailed picture than I may have been able to paint without it, especially the part about fashion, which helps ground the scene in reality.

Here’s a piece of it:

The driver let them off in Soho at La Trattoria Terrazza, the newest and trendiest of London’s “new style” Italian restaurants. The stark white façade contrasted sharply with the ancient, crumbling buildings surrounding it. Inside, the angular space was brightly lit, probably, Maddie thought, so everyone could watch everyone else. Rob nudged her arm; Michael Caine was sitting at a corner table with two men and a fabulous-looking young woman. Peter whispered her name was Shakira and she was a beauty queen from Guyana.

As they ordered drinks, a tall, leggy girl walked in, and with an exaggerated hip-slung pose, glanced around the room. Peter waved to her, and she glided to their table. With a melodramatic sigh, she removed her oversized dark glasses revealing deep blue shadowed eyes rimmed with black and lashes longer than Rob’s. Her arrival prompted approving looks from every male in the place, while their dates blinked in disdain and fluffed their hair.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said striking another pose and brushing long golden ringlets back over a fur-clad shoulder.

Maddie looked at Peter and then the girl. She was at least twenty-five years younger. Not only that, but beneath her fluffy fox jacket, she wore a mini that was a good four inches shorter than Maddie’s – a length currently considered very fashionable in New York. But she wasn’t the only one; all the girls had the same heavily shadowed eyes, fake eyelashes, and dresses the same length – if “length” was what it could be called. A few were wearing hot pants with high boots, furs flung casually over their shoulders. And every one of them was having dinner with a man easily twice her age.

Maddie, surveying the room, hoped there was a seamstress near the townhouse; every dress and skirt she owned was going to require severe shortening.

“Write what you know,” we are told. One never knows what may trigger a memory that, even in fiction, will enhance a scene or a moment in time. However you get there, it all counts. As one who lacks Stephen King’s endless imagination, that’s where I begin – grounded in some reality. I’d like to write a murder mystery, but in order to do so I would probably have to commit the crime. Since that’s not a terrific option, I take my strengths, add research, and try to weave a compelling, believable story that will (one hopes) resonate with my readers.

A couple of exercises:

Exercise 1
Create two characters in a relationship: friends, lovers, spouses. Next, construct a day and/or night when they are apart (typical day at work, traveling, etc.) when one or even both finds him– or herself in an unexpected, awkward, confrontational, or sexual situation. What is that character thinking, and how is he or she reacting? Describe the moment through dialog and body language. Then reunite your characters. How does each one reveal to the other what has happened that day or night? What are their truths and what are their lies (both spoken and unspoken)? Was the guy (or girl) really working late, or was he somewhere he doesn’t want his partner to know about? What is he saying and, more importantly, what is he thinking?

Exercise 2

Ground your story in some reality; not all places have to be made up. (Unless, of course, it takes place on another planet.) Put your characters in a situation you may, or may not be familiar with. Perhaps they’re in Beijing and it’s been a long time since you visited, or perhaps you’ve never even been there. Today you can easily find an endless amount of information on Beijing or anywhere else just by searching online. But go another step or two and make your scene special by adding in small elements that make it real: a real restaurant, a back street or a little known beach. Bring the story a touch of reality that might resonate with your reader. I was surprised that readers emailed me saying they had Googled some of the places and people I wrote about in 31 Days.

 

About the Author…
Born in Los Angeles, Marcia Gloster has lived the majority of her life in New York City, during which she built a career as an award-winning art director and book designer. She is a member of the National Association of Women Artists in New York City and Studio Montclair in New Jersey and has exhibited her paintings in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Her first book, 31 Days, is an intimate and remarkably honest memoir.
http://www.marciagloster.com

 

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Isn’t this funny? I’m a Story Plant author and have two novels published there (and another I self-published). While I am working on my next novel, I have had the idea to do a memoir. I have lots of material, but don’t know how much I want to reveal about people in my family.

    And you went the opposite way: memoir, then novel.

    It’s amazing the things we can do.

  2. Alan Boyce says:

    I started writing a memoir and now want to make it a autobiographical novel. Memoir is too personal and restrictive given the concern I have over revealing too much personal info on me and the people I know like my family. Is a autobiographical novel the way to go? Do they sell?

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