Prescriptive vs. Narrative Nonfiction

As I continue along my journey down the path of writing my first book, a memoir, it’s taken me months of trial and error to figure out how to do it, and although I’m still struggling, today I made real progress.

You see, back when I first started trying to figure out how to write my book, I thought I’d begin by reading similar books in the memoir genre in order to understand their structure, conventions, and obligatory scenes. 

My first choice was Becoming by Michelle Obama. I admire her greatly and would love to read about her life. 

Enter problem #1…

Becoming isn’t a memoir; it’s an autobiography. An autobiography details someone’s entire life. A memoir covers only a specific part of it.

People who are successful subjects of an autobiography are famous, and the rest of us are curious to know more about their lives. People who are not famous- like me, you, and your fifth grade teacher- should stick to memoir. This is because no one is really interested in hearing the details of our entire lives, like where we grew up and which elementary school we attended. Rather, readers are interested in relating to a specific experience in our lives and learning how they can overcome whatever struggle we overcame without necessarily having to experience it for themselves.

Alright, my first move was in the wrong direction (typical, as is well known by anyone who’s suffered navigating a new city with me. If I say, left- go right). Time to try again.

The second move I made was to contact a publisher to assess if there is any interest as well as to get some coaching about how to write it. I contacted Wise Ink publishers because they are a smaller company based in my home state of Minnesota, so I felt that their interactions with me would embody the Minnesota niceness that I’d been missing for so long. They also had an appealing website and a young team of professionals, who I thought might be more open-minded when working with a novice writer such as myself.

During our first phone call, the coaches picked up on the fact that I was inspired by a fellow Minnesotan’s memoir: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She is another blonde midwestern woman who’s been through some shit and whose story other people have found interesting and enjoyable.

In light of my connection, the coaches recommended that I read It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny. She is also a blonde woman from Minnesota who wrote a book about a life experience that people wanted to read, and would even pay for. Her book is a story about the grief she went through after having lost her father, her husband, and a pregnancy all within a very short amount of time.

I laughed and cried as I devoured Ms. McInerny’s writing. She shared many candid stories about her grief, each one teaching readers the lessons she’d learned from the experience. I loved the book’s precise organization and structure, and thought I too could teach the lessons I’d learned while experiencing life as a single, divorced, blonde, disabled American woman alone in the Middle East.

Problem #2: The book I now found my writing, and the one my writing was modeling, isn’t so much a memoir as it is a story of personal growth. At this point, my story about living and working in Qatar was diverging into two different ones. Like Nora McInerny, I related to having some shitty life experiences (particularly a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, meaning that my immune system errantly attacks my central nervous system), and I knew I could tell my story about it in a way that might help others get through similar situations. Yet at the same time, I wanted to inspire people to travel the world by sharing the pleasant and highly entertaining experiences I’d had over the four years I lived in Doha.

The more I wrote, the more I was blending the two different genres into one book and muddying my message. This has left me all kinds of flustered! I’ve been asking myself over and over again what exactly the story is that I’m trying to tell. Do I want to write about my frustrations with MS, or do I want to write about how surrendering to the unavoidable reality of it led me to say f-it to a crappy life and take off for the arid sands of the desert?

I’ve spent the past couple of months trying to decide which genre to choose: personal growth or memoir. Today, as I was reading The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman, I found the answer.

In Chapter 9. Book Publishing: Figuring Out Where Your Book Fits, Ms. Friedman delves into an explanation of the differences in nonfiction and fiction categories of books. When she gets to the part detailing the difference between prescriptive versus narrative nonfiction, she explain quite clearly the difference between personal growth and memoir, and how to choose between the two.

First of all, it’s best to avoid blending these genres because that would make the book difficult to sell, the importance of which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. She continues to get down to the nuts and bolts by writing if the primary goal is to help others and build a reputation as an expert in the subject matter, then prescriptive writing, such as personal growth, is the direction to take. However, if the primary goal is to tell your story and make a career as an author, stick with memoir.

She includes a few comments that explain how prescriptive writing doesn’t necessarily have to wow the reader with the creative artistry of its sentences. However, narrative nonfiction, like a memoir, does “require techniques like narrative tension, well-crafted scenes, and character development.”

Basically, my selection of genre boils down to this: do I want to help people by teaching them prescriptive takeaways regarding how to overcome real-life obstacles such as a traumatic diagnosis, or am I trying to craft a story that is composed by soundly adhering to conventions while stringing together artistic and striking sentences in order to entertain readers with my experience?

I think it’s the latter.

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