Writing Memoirs & Writing Fiction: why they’re the same

writing memoirs, writing fiction

WHY WRITING MEMOIRS IS THE SAME AS WRITING FICTION

I’ve always claimed that writing memoirs or real-life stories is no different than writing fiction, and vice versa. My first film, Foreign Letters, was a personal memoir about my immigration experience to the US as a tween girl in 1982. The next film, Tomorrow Ever After, was a time-travel fantasy. How I went about writing them wasn’t different.

The same storytelling tools apply. But more importantly: the golden rule of writing about myself always applies.

IF YOU’RE WRITING A SCI-FI ACTION FLICK ABOUT HAMSTERS IN SPACE, YOU’RE STILL WRITING A MEMOIR.

Why? Because that story isn’t really about hamsters or space. Your story is about how the hamsters feel, what they hope for, what they’re scared of, what their relationships are like, the decisions they make.

The emotional content of your story about hamsters in space is very much you writing a memoir.

Your best work is about you. There’s no getting around it.

Foreign Letters, film by Ela Thier
"Foreign Letters" was my memoir film about my immigration experience to the US in 1982.

Concern yourself with what people want to watch and you’re already off track. what people want to watch is you.

You, who you really are, your emotional life, is the most interesting thing that you have to offer. And it’s plenty. Feel free to throw in hamsters and space for good measure and to raise the budget, but who you really are is plenty interesting. It’s the most interesting thing.

When you write authentically, when you write about your own emotional truth and experience, the work automatically becomes both unique and universal.

offer yourself for real, and your audience will feel seen and less alone. It’s an act of generosity.

Avoid writing from some professional distance that’s all about the gags and set pieces and clever twists. Write truthfully about yourself and you’ll automatically write the most unique stuff you could possibly be writing because there’s no one else like you. Get focused on what “hamsters in space” would be like, and you’re likely to end up writing the same clichés that everyone else writes about when they write about hamsters in space.

while you end up with your most unique stuff, your work also becomes universal.

Write personally and besides it being unique it will also be relatable. That’s because our emotional turmoil as humans isn’t all that different from one another. We’re all scared, insecure, lonely; we all yearn for respect and connection.

When Foreign Letters premiered in Toronto, a man in his 80’s came up to me after the screening. He tried to tell me that he liked the film but he couldn’t say a word without crying. Mind you that this is a film about two twelve-year-old girls. Because I wrote about myself, I was writing about every friendship. He could see himself in the film.

writing adaptations
Writer-director Taika Waititi adapted Christine Leunens's dramatic "Caging Skies" into the Oscar-winning dark comedy, "Jojo Rabbit."

WRITING ADAPTATIONS IS (DRUM ROLL PLEASE) LIKE WRITING MEMOIRS

Christine Leunen’s dark and dramatic novel, Caging Skies, was turned by Taika Waititi into the Oscar-winning zany, screwball dark comedy Jojo Rabbit.

Leunens, who loved the film, said that when Taikiki first sent her the screenplay he said: “It’s still your baby, it just has different clothes.” To make it funny, to make it his, he sprinkled some Hitler into it, as one does.

Waititi knew that creating an adaptation of Caging Skies not about putting that book on the screen. It’s about using the book to inspire him sharing – you guessed it – himself.

WRITING TRUE-LIFE STORIES IS (YOU GUESSED IT) LIKE WRITING MEMOIRS

When I was approached about writing Puncture (starring Chris Evans), I took on the project because I liked the story. This was a David & Goliath legal adventure that exposes corruption in the for-profit American “healthcare” industry. Sign me up! Only problem was: I knew nothing about being a lawyer, or the “healthcare” industry.

So naturally, I turned this true-life story into my own memoir. At the heart of the story were two guys who had been friends since childhood and went on to build a law firm together. I knew about friendship, so I knew I was going to center the film around their relationship. (Remember: hamsters in space is not about hamsters or space, it’s about how the hamsters feel, about themselves and each other.)

I then decided to accentuate the one guy as the reckless-I-can-do-it-all guy, who will stop at nothing. The other guy was going to be the cautious, this-is-too-big-for-us-let’s-be-realistic guy. Voila. Now I could write about – myself and turn it into a “memoir.”

I know what it’s like to feel so passionately about something that you do it against your better judgement and stop at nothing.

As to feeling like something’s too big and impossible to achieve, I certainly know that too.

Each of these characters, although they were opposite each other (as I chose to portray them), and although they were real life people, were each some aspect of myself.

WRITING EPISODES FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S SERIES? THAT’S RIGHT… MEMOIR WRITING.

I once attended a TV writing workshop by a veteran TV writer who had worked in writers’ rooms for decades. She said that whether she was writing an episode of Taxi, or Everybody Loves Raymond, or her own shows, she wrote about her own emotional life – her own experiences. As a TV writer, she had to couched her personal stories into pre-made fictional characters and worlds.

WRITING IS A LOT LIKE ACTING

Actors, at their best, react truthfully to imaginary circumstances. As an actor, if your job is to pretend that you’re a war hero who just lost her best friend, you can’t pretend you’re grief-stricken. That will look like acting. Your job is to bring the real you to the work: remember what it was like to lose your dog, or your great aunt, or what it was like to lose a best friend when you moved to another city. Bring that in and we’ll believe that you’re a bereft war hero.

That’s where great acting comes from. It’s where the best writing comes from as well.

Writing memoirs, writing fictin, bohemian rhapsody
Many creative liberties taken in Behomian Rhapsody, Dir Bryan Singer, which is true of most if not all "real-life" stories.

CONVERSELY: TRUE-LIFE STORIES AND MEMOIRS, When done well, are fictitious.

Just as great fiction is always a piece of memoir writing (even when it’s hamsters in space!) true-life memoirs are always fiction.

When telling a true-life story, your job is to tell a story.

Seen Bohemian Rhapsody? In real life, Freddy Mercury found out he had AIDS after the famous live AIDS concert. Changing the order of events created a riveting plot, and it was the right choice.

A friend of mine told me that when she was little, she watched The Sound of Music every day for two years (what?!) I think that’s a bigger endorsement than the thousand Oscars (give or take) that this movie received. In real life: The Captain was 25 years older than Maria; they married years before the Nazi takeover; it was an arranged marriage; and in fact, 3 of the Von Trapp children were actually Maria’s own, biological children. Keeping true to all that would have ruined this movie.

All fiction, all memoir, all the time.

Thank you for writing,
Ela

Comment below:

What are your favorite movies that are adaptations or based on real-life stories? Comment below and let me know!

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5 thoughts on “Writing Memoirs & Writing Fiction: why they’re the same”

  1. OH MY GOOOODDDDD. I just completed my first screenplay which is a based on a true story. I tried so hard to follow her true life but someone said not to keep to truth, to use my creative license and make it “real for movies.” Oh boy did I do that. I added things that made me step out of my box, my wild side. For example, she went to Vegas to do a show but what happened in Vegas and who she met were my creations. I did this throughout. I love this 3 years in the making (writing), and now doing what I hope are final touch ups. Can’t wait for a table read.

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  2. I love the film Like Water for Chocolate, the Mexican film based on a novel. It captured the magic of Mexicans and cooking.
    I’d love to write a screenplay about Carlos Castaneda. I met the sorcerer and one of his witches a couple of times. Their dangerously alluring magic was real but everything else was make believe. They hated Timothy Leary because he mocked CC’s intelligence.

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    • The time travelers wife by Audrey Niffenegger is definitely a favorite adaptation of mine. The writing style felt like a memoir told by two, it was captivating. I picked it up and didn’t put it down for two months. To see it on screen was different, but comforting. Even with the sci-fi notion, it played true to what I felt was the heart of the story. A terrifying love, a great love that could span time, space and reality to still be true. I think I’ll have to go give it another read or watch.

      Reply
  3. Somewhere In Time and Wings of Desire came to mind immediately. I’m a huge Beatles fan and seeing John Lennon’s character was a major shock. That really threw me for a loop! The angels in Wings of Desire are definitely interesting because they try to understand humans. But I believe the director, Wim Wenders, was expressing his own dismay of the human condition. A dark but powerful film.

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    • OMG I selected two movies and the title of one of them was wrong. I really love Somewhere In Time but I was referring to the movie Yesterday. Sorry about that! I tried to edit it after I sent it but there is no edit feature.

      Reply

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