I’m thick into National Novel Writing Month, but I saw this book at a friend’s house, scanned the introduction, and have to record this great description of “story” versus “experience”:

There is a difference [between story and experience]. A story has shape, outlines, limits; an experience blurs at the edges and tends to merge imperceptibly with related experiences. In many cases, experiences are what happen to us, whereas stories happen to other people.

Experiences are intensely complicated and hard to recount: for instance, I could describe the first failed marriages of a dozen friends with far more clarity than I could describe my own. That’s because I know too much about my personal history, and lack the distance necessary for simplicity.

Stories, in order to become stories, must be simplified, stripped of extraneous detail and vagrant feeling. We find it easier to do this with the lives of others — though from time to time, we may apply the same technique to our own history.

— Robert Fulford, The Triumph of Narrative, Toronto: Anasi, 1999, p.4.

And those “extraneous detail[s] and vagrant feeling[s]” are part of what makes memoir writing so difficult; as opposed to the fiction writer, we don’t need to think about what to put in — like a sculptor, we have to determine what to leave out!


Originally published on WordPress on Nov. 23, 2009