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Learning About Memoir by Writing Fiction

Peer Artist Leader Jennifer Gaites discusses how enrolling in the Novel Incubator helped her develop her memoir's narrative arc.

By Jennifer Gaites

April 12, 2023

Once upon a time, there was a writer who had a lot to learn…

When I signed up for book inc’s Memoir Incubator last January, I knew there were a lot of things I didn’t know about writing a full-length manuscript. Mostly, how? But, I was excited to learn as I went. And learn I did. Things like: writing begets writing (even a quick burst of 15 minutes can keep you in your story), that writing fast and moving forward will get you to the finish line (and you might even be pleased-ish with the material you have to revise), and pushing through resistance will yield surprises.

One thing I felt certain I knew, though, was my subject—what I was writing about. This was, after all, a memoir. Right? Right?!

Reader, she did not know…

Story is all about transformation. Our protagonists need to want something, struggle to get it, and be changed by the end of the narrative arc. It took over 50,000 words before I realized that I did not entirely know what my protagonist wanted. Sure, the scenes were clear, but the themes kept changing. 

I’m embarrassed to admit it, because … er, since it is a memoir, I am the protagonist. 

Then, she started writing fiction…

In the last few months, I’ve been outlining what I hope will be the scaffolding for a novel. As I write through journaling prompts and beat structure, I’ve started to explore what my fictional hero wants. At first, I gave her an external desire—the belief that, “If only I could achieve this one thing, my life will be better.” I brainstormed a bunch of obstacles to keep her from attaining that goal. Then, I thought about why this character believes that this external goal will change her life? What does she think achieving this goal will give her?

As I answered questions about my fictional protagonist, something clicked. Once I moved further into my outline, imagining plot points as I went, I could see that my fictional hero and my memoir hero kiiinda want the same thing [insert forehead slap here]. 

Whether I’m making it up or exploring my own life, I seem to always come back to themes of identity and belonging. Though no less vulnerable, writing fiction feels less personal somehow. I still worry about entertaining the reader, but I’m relieved to not be the character on the page. 

She is transformed (ehh, but still learning… )

Intentionally or not, I think that writers explore the same topics—making sense of their own human longings and needs—from different perspectives in different ways. Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. 

The story, I’ve learned, will reveal itself through the writing … I just didn’t know that it would take writing fiction to reveal the real story within my memoir. 

Jennifer Gallo Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now, and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and is forthcoming in Hippocampus.