SPEAK is not a memoir, she said again

A great question from Anonymous came in the comments the other day. I get it a lot, so I figured it’s worth repeating as loud as I can.

Anonymous wrote: “i go to fm high school and ive always been wondering who the teachers really were at the school. i know one of them is based on mr procopio (who still teaches there by the way) but i dont know which one.”

(Note to world: F-M is where I went to high school.)

Here was my reply: “Nobody in the book is based on anyone in real life. (I keep saying this over and over and over again, but nobody seems to listen to it.)

SPEAK is NOT a memoir. SPEAK is a work of fiction.

However, the kind, positive influence that Mr. Freeman has is very much like the kind, positive influence Mr. Procopio had on me, and countless other students. Fiction writers borrow from real life. But we don’t photocopy it.”

I guess the distinction between fiction and memoir/autobiography/RealWorld is getting blurrier as all the stupid “reality” shows continue to inbreed and virally infect our brains. Like most fiction authors, I borrow some things from my life (not much), I take material from the culture and world around me, and I make up tons and tons of stuff. Blend it together and it becomes a story.

I am fascinated by what seems to be a growing concern about what is “real” in books, as opposed to what is “not real.” (This is also the heart of the issues faced by writers like James “I Lied, I Lied” Frey, and some are now saying, Augusten Burroughs.)

Let me see if I can give you an example. If I want to write (in a novel) about a scene between a girl and her boyfriend, I have a lot of choices. I can make it up completely. I can pull a scene from my memory bank, something that happened between me and one of my boyfriends. I can describe a scene someone told me about, a friend, one of my daughters, or a story I heard standing in line at the coffee shop. I can describe the scene I saw and unfortunately heard (everyone heard, they were not discrete) in the restaurant. I have many, many choices.

Because I enjoy writing fiction, and because I actually am a fairly private person, I will probably go with the very first option – make up the whole darn thing. I will, however, probably pull something from my emotional memory bank. (This is an advantage older writers have over younger writers. More years = more experiences = bigger pile of emotion to tap into. On the other hand, we fall asleep by 8:30pm, so it evens out.) I know what it feels like to fall in love, fall out of love, be starry-eyed, have a jealous fit. Whatever the emotional tenor of the scene requires, I’ve been there. So even if I make up every single detail of the scene, the emotions probably echo something I’ve lived through.

Does that make sense? Any thoughts?

24 Replies to “SPEAK is not a memoir, she said again”

    1. Vegetables rarely make good candy. Let that be a lesson to you. Vegetables require butter and salt. Fruit requires sugar.

      Dear America….. they actually asked me to turn FEVER 1793 into one of their books. I turned down the offer. From everything I’ve read and heard, the authors do very good research work, which counts for a lot. Anything that is palatable (not, like, say potato candy) and gets kids interested in history is a good thing.

      What do you think?

  1. *sigh* I love Augusten Burroughs. He’s a brilliant writer, and his books are utterly hilarious. Everyone involved in a given situation lives it differently. My siblings and I remember elements and events of our childhood differently. He’s writing his memoir through the filter of … well, him. Does he embellish? I’ll bet he does, a bit. But outright lies? I don’t think so.

    What you’re saying about a writer’s emotions infiltrating their work makes perfect sense to me.

  2. Thankyou

    I won’t bother with any questions. As an author, you probably get a lot of them. I’m 19 years young and I had just finished Speak. I only wanted to thank you for writing it. I realized that this was the first time I felt anything like this for a while by the time I hit Bologna Exile. Maybe because in inventing a fictional character, you granted me comfort because for an instant, it felt like maybe something else understood. And it moved me to tears. I tried finding a place where I could send you fanmail on your web site, but I had no luck. This book moved me to tears. You’re a very powerful writer, and I hope that you never let go of that. Thankyou for your time. –Jacqueline of WNY.

  3. I think the more horrifying and personal something *seems*, the more readers are likely to assume that it’s based on something that happened to you. I once wrote a flash fiction piece about a sexual assault of a teenage girl that I just could not convince people was NOT based on personal experience.

  4. I recently finished Running with Scissors, and as I was reading it, a lot of it rang untrue to me.

    I know Burroughs has said that it is a “loose adaptation” of what happened to him, but I still had a hard time believing that some of it could have happened the way he said.

  5. but wasn’t the lunchlady based on you?

    i think you’re right that reality TV has ruined a lot of people for fiction (note that i very specifically do not say “ruined fiction for a lot of people”). it’s now no longer enough for someone to make up an interesting person or scenario, for the audience to get their full voyeristic thrill they have to believe that it really happened to someone else because then it could really happen to them. i feel sorry for a lot of authors these days who are getting screwed on “falsifying” fictional accounts of true events, because ten years ago their publishers wouldn’t have felt the driving need to slap “based on a true story” all over the fiction – “made up by someone talented” would have been enough.

  6. I feel the same way as , particularly about Speak. I know the first time i read the book, i felt like parts of it had to be true, because the style it is written in is so distinctive and because Melinda is such a well-developed character.

    It probably gets frustrating after a while of people wondering if Speak is a true story, but these readers who think Speak is true are actually complimenting you for telling a story so clearly and vividly. Bravo!

    PS- No offense, but i dont think it is fair to blame reality TV – i dont really watch TV, reality or otherwise, but i still wondered if Speak was real.

  7. I am constantly writing in my mind, and even if it is in response to what IS happening, I change it: What if this had happened instead of that? What if this had been said instead of that? If someone I know says something spontaneously that is hilarious or striking in some way, I’ll ask, “May I use that in something at some point?” Sometimes, an offhand comment sparks a story, but it’s always different than the case in point.

  8. When I write, more often then not, I make stuff up. And, more often then not, people think it’s REAL. Heck, even the stuff I READ sets people off. When my husband and I first met, I told him about several books I liked that involved rape, and he thought that maybe something had happened to me and that’s why I read these books. Now he knows that NOPE, I just have an empathy for these characters.

    And when I write, I write about people I have made up… who I deeply CARE ABOUT. Are there some things I write about from real life? Sometimes. Sometimes I take a conversation and change it. Sometimes characters feel the same way about things that I feel. Sometimes they don’t. My favorite scenes I have written are ones I completely made up.

    Poetry can be a bit different. But, even then. One of my best recieved poems (this was in a poetry class in college) was COMPLETELY made up. People went on and on about I did so well describing the scene and all of that, but I made the whole thing up. I listened to an instrumental Zero 7 song and wrote. And even the guy who complained people should only write what they have experienced liked it. He thought it was real.

    I may be young, but I’ve experienced a lot, and have seen a lot and because I am an actor, too, I can put myself into characters to write.

    So, I agree with everything you’ve said. =)

  9. Speak is a great fiction that teaches young girls like myself that it is ok to get your thoughts out and tell all you dark secrets. that have to be told even if they are very painful and sad. the book was very well written just like all of Laurie’s other books.But I really wish there were more laurie halse anderson books to read because they are great and interesting.

    1. Re: sorry

      Oh. no, please don’t apologize!!! Obviously it’s something that a lot of people are curious about. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to put the answer here on the blog.

      Keep asking questions – I love them!

  10. I completely agree with this sentence: “So even if I make up every single detail of the scene, the emotions probably echo something I’ve lived through.”

    Sometimes I know what the emotions/characters/situations are drawn from and sometimes I don’t. I just recently realized how much of a personal relationship I put into a story I started four years ago.

    I find it interesting how many people assume anything powerfully written has to be an exact recreation of something the author lived through. I like your reality TV theory, and I really miss not having as many scripted TV shows to choose from when I want to unwind with that instead of a book.

  11. ::drool:: Just looking at those shoe — so fresh and without hundreds of miles on them — makes me want to go run. But I just ate and that would be a bad idea.

    Glad to hear your mom is doing well! And I always love to hear about good staffs at hospitals, as my dad is perhaps the most awesome physical therapist there is in the world (OK, I’m biased, but still; he’s sweet). It’s just nice to know there are other people out there who put the ‘care’ in health care not because it’s their job, but because it really brings them joy to do so.

    –Brian

  12. Woot to plugs for Full Cast!

    And I was sticking to everything as I got ready for the airport this morning. Bleh. Neither do I do well in the icky-sticky heat, including the four-and-a-half hours of sleep I could have used before getting up to get ready for my flight.

    I hope the weather breaks before I come home!

  13. Merry Christmas!

    Hi, Laurie!
    Oh, to be the Creature with Fangs on Christmas morning!
    Can’t wait to see more snowy photographs! It’s raining and warm(ish) here in North Carolina, so your snow is much appreciated!
    Have a lovely day–D

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