In recent decades, the genre of ‘memoir’ has proliferated to the point that it seems nearly every family can point to a relative who has written one or is in the process of writing one. A memoir, not to be confused with an autobiography, is a snapshot, or series of snapshots from an individual’s life. The memoir blends both accounts of past events with thought and reflection. It is meant to offer a picture of how an individual has become themselves. Memoirs are meant to preserve memory rather than fact, and while the line between the two is thin and grey, it exists. Historically, memoirs were private works that could be used to help craft more complete works in the future, but today memoirs exist on their own as complete works.
But I’m not here to lecture you on memoirs, other writers will be much better at that than me. If you’re curious about memoirs, check out Lee Martin’s blog where he writes on a weekly basis. And a lot of that is about memoir writing.
And I’m not here to lecture you on fantasy; again, other writers can do that better than me. Don’t get me wrong, I can talk your ear off about fantasy and writing it, but that’s not what I’m here to do today.
Today, we’re going to shove these two things together into the fantasy-memoir.
If you were to try and search out a definition for such a thing, you’d be hard pressed to find one. The most likely thing you’ll discover is a 2007 work by the name of Slim: A Fantasy Memoir. Written by Cynthia Rowley (yes, the fashion designer), the book features a tendency to drift between reality and daydreams. Both are equal parts memory and it would be unfair to call a daydream something other than fantasy. To do so would be to deny another individual their right to engage in their fantasy. Like memory, fantasy is a highly personal thing.
Note that here we are not speaking of the literary genre ‘fantasy’ but rather of imagination, escapism, and dreams. Often we view reality and fantasy as dichotomous items, mutually exclusive. For something to be one it would be impossible to be the other. But think, if you will, about the relationship between memory and reality.
To save ourselves a great deal of headache, please note that I am using the terms ‘reality’ and ‘fact’ interchangeably. Both are tinged by the source we experience them through and both are subject to warping with age. This warp is what results in memory, be it an individual’s memory, or a society’s, or a global memory. The most well-known form that this warping takes is ‘nostalgia.’ Once a fact has been warped by nostalgia (or some other feeling) into memory it becomes impossible to recover. Even attempting to account for nostalgia when looking back through our lives only leads to approximations of what realities might have been.
But this is part of what makes a memoir a memoir. A retelling of facts is not what a reader of memoirs is interested in. They are interested in the feel, the way these facts connect the writer and the reader to deeper truths and rationalized beliefs. They are not interested in who a writer was, but rather how the writer became what they are now.
Accepting that memory and reality are divided (if only just) by a fuzzy line, it seems unfair to say that the same can’t be said for memory and fantasy. Ray Bradbury often wrote about things hiding in dark places, be they at the top of the stairs or in the bottom of ditches by the road. Such things influenced the way he behaved as a child and informed the way he wanted to write.
I remember being both terrified and exhilarated as a child roaming with my friends through the drains underneath the street in my neighborhood. In the darkness and amongst the cobwebs there was always a myth to be found of something else living down there, be it an alligator, ghost, or psychotic vagrant. Things young children didn’t want to come across, yet still almost wanted to exist down there.
So the fantasy is coupled with my memory of that place, almost to the point where they are inseparable. And to the child wandering those cramped, dark corridors the fear and excitement of the fantasy was inseparable from the quiet, empty darkness of the reality.
So as writers of memoir (and yes, I have dabbled), we shouldn’t be struggling to maintain those thin borders between memory, fantasy, and reality. To do so would be to fight a losing battle. Rather, we should tear those boundaries down because in the human mind of the writer recounting these things, they have become one pulsing mass that can be called whatever you want.
Is this what I meant when I use the term fantasy-memoir? No, but it is important to understanding the fantasy-memoir.
I wrote a draft of my fantasy-memoir a little more than two years ago and didn’t start calling it that until about two weeks ago. It is best described as an expansion on a dream log. There is not a single section of it that isn’t heavily inspired by or (in many instances) taken directly from the dream log I keep next to my bed. There may be a couple of phrases or words in this description that trouble you more traditional memoir readers and writers.
The first: ‘dreams.’ Memoirs are generally accepted as works of nonfiction and dreams take place outside of reality. What happens in a dream is not reality because it doesn’t impact the waking world around it. Even if you’re hanging out with people you know in a dream, you will be the only one to remember it or make an account of it.
This is true. Dreams leave no physical evidence of their passing and the dreamer is the only one who can be said to have experienced them. But the dreamer does experience them and take experience from them.
As evidence I offer the greatest singular artistic piece of inspiration for my writing: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. A while back, I offered the question of whether or not the events in the film were actually just a dream of the protagonist. At the end of the story, she was the only one to have experienced and remembered the events of the film, with no time appearing to have passed for anyone involved. But, she clearly grew from her experience and was different at the conclusion of the story than at the start.
This same sort of change is what we’re interested in as memoir writers. As Lee Martin puts it: “memoir exists to take us further into the future, not to keep us rooted in the past.”
Can dreams alter the way an individual views themselves, change the way they try to live their life, and inform the person they’ve become? Yes to all. While I will not bore you with my spirituality regarding dreams, I will say that this spirituality has allowed my dreams to alter who I am compared to who I was. And for the most part, I believe these alterations have been for the better. After all, dreams are the mind’s way of making sense of and organizing our experiences in the waking world.
As for the second part of my fantasy-memoir definition that might trouble you: ‘heavily inspired by.’ Shouldn’t this dream memoir be a verbatim retelling of the dreams I’ve had? If we accept a memory of a dream as ‘fact,’ isn’t it the duty of a memoir writer to keep it this way?
No, because it is not the events that matter per se in the memoir. And especially when it comes to dreams, the events don’t matter as much as the feelings, the memory of it. What matters is not what happened, but how events influenced us and made them worth writing down in the first place. I think Martin, again, puts it best:
Sometimes the facts can serve us well, but sometimes a few minor adjustments can serve the story better and more forcefully lead us to what we’ve come to the page to explore, to interrogate, to dramatize, as we finally know in our heart of hearts a deeper layer of truth rising up through the surfaces of our lives.
I think it were these posts by Martin that led me to re-label this story I wrote from ‘fantasy-adventure’ to ‘fantasy-memoir.’ It was the changes I made to the story to give it an overarching theme and plot that had me questioning whether or not I could honestly define this as a piece of nonfiction. But because these changes aid the story and so long as I keep the soul of the work consistent, then I think I can call it a ‘fantasy-memoir’ with a clear conscience.
And to those who still think I’m wrong to claim this as nonfiction I say: fine. After all, it’s really only nonfiction to me since I can’t prove any of the events therein or prove how I’ve been changed by the events therein. But if we accept that memoirs are about an individual’s memories and how they came to be the person they are from the person they were, then please accept my journeys through the other world (if it’s ever published) as the fantasy-memoir it is.
And if you still find yourself doubting, then try keeping a dream log. Record every dream you can remember as soon as you remember it. See what kinds of stories it can inspire be they short, long, flash, or epic. Then, after many years of keeping dreams and reflecting on them every so often, see if you can’t link them together and share them with others.
Before you know it, you’ll have your own ‘fantasy-memoir’ or whatever you want to call it waiting to be refined and published. Most people spend a third of their lives asleep. It seems sad to just discount what happens during that third of our lives as anything other than ‘memory,’ no matter how fantastic that memory happens to be.