Can a Memoir be a Novel?

This semester, our students divided into four groups, one for each book assigned to the class. Their assignment was to analyze the traits of the protagonist and create a reverse storyboard of the story’s structure.  Three of those books were fiction.  The fourth, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, was a memoir.
It sounds strange, studying a creative nonfiction work in an Advanced Fiction class.  But Walls’s bestselling memoir, chronicling her eccentric upbringing and life in poverty, sets itself apart from other autobiographical works with its style of writing.  It has often been said that the book “reads like a novel.”  Like a typical novel, Walls’s book is straightforward in narrative and scenic in nature.
Alec Brenneman, Mo Smith, Miranda Wuestefeld, and Jennifer Perov stand in front of their storyboard for The Glass Castle.
In Tuesday’s reading quiz over the memoir, Cathy Day asked the students to explain how the memoir felt like a novel to them.  Some answers included:
“The reader is put in the scene.  In other memoirs I’ve read there is a conscious narrator that tends to butt in with 20/20 hindsight or supply additional information.  In this book the characters tell us all we need to know with very little to no narrator intrusion.” – Casey Alexander
“I think that [it reads like a novel] because there is a “goal” we are presented with at the beginning and the stories are catapults that pull us toward New York instead of stopping to pause and analyze how the protagonist feels.” – Spencer McNelly
“It’s a mostly linear story with a progression and growth of the protagonist and there is a payoff at the end when the kids have made it out.” – Mo Smith
In the class discussion, Cathy Day noted the unique challenges a memoir presents.  “When you’re writing from life, you actually end up with too much plot,” she said.  Cathy compared whittling down a lifetime into a book to editing down hours of footage for a documentary.  In The Glass Castle, Walls uses short vignettes from her life to make the novel move quickly and give a feel for all the varied aspects of her childhood.

In today’s class, the students discussed how the memoir would have changed if it had been differently organized.  Cathy Day brought up “the tyranny of the novel,” in which authors would rather not tell a straightforward story but feel pressured to do it because that’s what readers expect and the publishing industry prefers.  She asked how they felt the story would have read if it were organized thematically instead of chronologically.  For example, if the book had been organized into essays about her family members, such as one about her sister Maureen, entitled “My Lost Sister,” one about her grandmother entitled. “My West Virginia Grandmother,” and one about the lack of food growing up called “Foods I Ate to Survive.”
“If she’d done it thematically none of the stories would have any connection to the others.” – Alec Brenneman

“Another problem if she told it thematically is that the characters are so interwoven that it’s hard to pull them apart.” – Meredith Sims
“I feel like if she’d done it thematically she would have had to make some judgments [of the characters].” – Ashley Ford
Jeannette Walls signs at copy of her memoir at Ball State University.
While The Glass Castle is not a work of fiction, the reverse storyboard and class discussion demonstrated that there was much to learn about structuring and plotting a linear novel with a large time span from the memoir.  Jeannette Walls herself gave helpful advice to aspiring writers during a question and answer session following her speech at Ball State University on September 21.  When a student asked her how to put realistic emotions in his writing, Walls repeated the advice her mother gave her in the prologue of The Glass Castle: “You should tell the truth.”  Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, Walls explained, staying true to your own emotions and the stories you want to write will make the words on your page seem real.
– Lauren Burch

Next week’s novel is Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Follow along with the class by following @LaurenEBurch on Twitter. 

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