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Marcia Gloster: Memoir vs. Novel: A Writer’s Perspective

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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 one writes a memoir one knows 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 the ‘60s 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.

So 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 other characters were thinking. But in memoir, as in life, the writer can never truly know another person’s thoughts. All we know is what is communicated through actions and conversation, which we 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 their conflicts over several years. 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 behaviors, responses and most innermost thoughts of each character within their individual and separate day-to-day worlds. As we all know, what we experience and what we tell 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.

Research required

Since I’m a woman writing about the innermost thoughts of a man, 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 sex; it’s part of the process. But I needed to go further and deeper. In lieu of a male co-writer, I chose several men with some similar traits to my character who agreed to read and honestly critique the thoughts and motivations of my male character: his actions and reactions, his most personal thoughts and emotions, his truths, and more importantly, his lies. The input has been amazing. 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 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 20-somethings emerging from the restrictive conventionality of the 1950s and adapting to the wildly transitional time in which they were suddenly living. Even though I lived and worked during those years, my memories often felt incomplete or dim. I turned to Google—my ever-faithful research tool while writing 31 Days—to retrieve details that would offer verisimilitude. My intent was to take those details and weave them into the lives and surroundings of my characters.

If you know how to follow links, even weak ones, it’s amazing what you can unearth. One 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. I could have left well alone; after all, it was easier to just make up the name and create the ambiance. But something nudged me to look for it. This was in 1969—long before the digital age and the place was long gone. 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. 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 mind giving me a far more detailed picture than I may have been able to paint without it.

“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’m afraid that in order to write a murder mystery, 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.

The working title is “I Love You Today.”

Marcia photo

Marcia Gloster is the author of 31 Days: A Memoir of Seduction. Visit her website for more.

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On May 7, 2015
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