Guest Post: Mary Gottschalk Discusses The Difference Between Memoir Vs. Novel Writing (Other Than The Obvious!)

AFittingPlace_FrontCover_3.5I remember the first time I thought, “Hey, I’ll write a novel.” It was immediately followed by the thought, “What am I? Crazy?” I was steeped in the journalist world of who, what, where, when, and how; my writing life was comprised of truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I’m glad I took the leap even though the answer might still be that yes, I’m a little crazy. 

Today, Mary Gottschalk shares with her experience of going from the idea of a memoir to that of a novel. 

Please welcome Mary to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Memoir Vs. Novel: Training Wheels for Any Writer

by Mary Gottschalk

AFittingPlace_FrontCover_3.5I am often asked which is the “better” vehicle—a memoir or a novel—for a story that has some basis in fact. As the author of both a memoir and a novel, I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for the reader or the writer. What I do believe is that for a newbie writer, a memoir is a much better place to start.

Unlike fiction, the outer boundaries of a memoir are defined before the first word hits the page. As a memoirist, you “know” where the story begins and where it ends, who the players are and what they’re like. As a memoirist, the number of your plot points and scenes are constrained by reality. Your job is to connect the dots, not make them up.

But getting the dots down on paper does not a memoir make. Knowing where the story begins and ends is not the same as having a strong story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that propel the story forward. Knowing why your story matters is not the same as having a sympathetic protagonist that readers will care about, a protagonist with a clearly defined desire line that creates tension and keeps the reader turning the page. Knowing the players and their personalities is not the same as having complex and multi-dimensional characters whose strengths elicit our admiration and whose foibles gain our empathy.

In other words, a well-written memoir should read like fiction.

Learning the Writer-ly Craft

One advantage of starting your creative writing career as a memoirist is that, when you get it wrong in your first draft, you have fewer things to fix.

As a memoirist, you can’t change the trajectory of events, so you have to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within whatever storyline you have. You learn, by trial and error, which events move the story forward and how it feels when your story begins to unfold organically. You learn that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose can heighten the emotional truth of your story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, as the author of a memoir, you can’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All you can do is focus on re-writing those that are flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. Your focus is on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. You learn that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say. Above all, you have some sense of what you’re aiming for as you try to repair a crippled story.

Learning to be a good writer is never easy, but it feels more manageable when you’re tackling a memoir than the bad first draft of a novel. With an infinite number of possible events, scenes and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in selection of characters, or some combination of them all. For a neophyte, sorting it out is all but impossible.

By the time I began my novel, I had some solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Without the memoir, there never could have been a novel.

Finding Your Voice

Another advantage of starting with a memoir is that it is easier for a newly-minted author to find her “voice” in a memoir than in a novel.

As a voracious reader, I recognized “voice” when I saw it, but I certainly couldn’t define it. When I turned my hand to creative writing, I had no idea to find my own voice. That was hardly a surprise, as I’d spent many years as a writer in a business context, where I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view.

Looking back, I’m convinced the dreariness of the first draft of my memoir was due in no small measure to the lack of a distinctive voice. But as I re-wrote and re-crafted and re-organized my story around situations I had lived through and people I knew well—as I got closer and closer to a story that read like fiction—my voice began to emerge.

Could that have happened if I’d started out with a novel, where all the elements—story arc, scenes, and characters—were potentially in flux? I doubt it.

Priming the Pump

Writer-ly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

As the memoir unfolded and my voice emerged, however, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing on the open ocean was a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The lesson of that voyage, a lesson that changed my life, was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel.

It will not be my last.

Mary has made a career out of changing careers.

After finishing graduate school, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, first in New York, then in New Zealand and Australia, eventually returning to the U.S.

Along the way, she dropped out several times. In the mid-80’s, at age 40, Mary and her husband Tom embarked on the three-year sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, SAILING DOWN THE MOONBEAM. When the voyage ended, she returned to her career in finance, but dropped out again to provide financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community.

In her latest incarnation, she is a full time writer. Her first novel, A FITTING PLACE, was released May 1, 2014.

A Fitting Place on Amazon (it is also available on iBooks):






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5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mary Gottschalk Discusses The Difference Between Memoir Vs. Novel Writing (Other Than The Obvious!)

  1. Your piece is very interesting, Mary, especially because I did it the opposite way. After writing two novels, my WIP is a memoir about five separate volunteer experiences in the developing world. The thing is, if I hadn’t written the novels, I’d have less of a grasp of how to put the memoir together so it reads like fiction which, as you say, is what it needs to do. I guess each way (memoir-then-fiction or fiction-then-memoir), as with everything in life, has its advantages and disadvantages. Thanks for your observations.


    • Carole … your comment has made me ponder why one approach works better than the other for different people. As I look back, I think part of it, for me, is that I did not see myself as having the “imagination” to create the range of scenes or characters needed for a novel. Doing the memoir, however, I find lots of things I wanted to explore that were outside the scope of “my story.” Voila, a novel!


  2. This is a fabulous guidepost for all writers. I’m working on a novel and a memoir. I totally agree that writing a memoir is the best place to find your voice. It wasn’t until I thought about my “first-person” novel as a kind of memoir that the voice of my protagonist grew roots. Thanks for sharing, Mary. And thanks to Amy for bringing you to us. xoxo


    • Jocosa … an interesting angle on finding your voice, but it reinforces the notion that you can’t “construct” a voice, but simply have to find a way to let it out. I hope our paths will cross again!


  3. Mary, you describe the differences – and the similarities – between memoir writing and novels so very well. I, like you, started out with my memoir. I found the transition to fiction to be slow going and painful at times. I’d already written a book, so why was this so hard? What was so different about it?
    Some things I learned in writing my memoir did cross over, “voice” being one of the biggies. But although the creative license is so much broader with fictional stories, I did find it difficult not personally “knowing” my characters, as they existed only in my imagination. I had to sit down and really get to know my fictional characters before I could write believably about them.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!


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