Have you ever wondered about the differences between memoir and creative nonfiction? It is my privilege to welcome Natalie Hanemann to Five Minute Friday with a guest post on creative nonfiction vs. memoir. My first traditional publisher hired Natalie to serve as my editor for my memoir, A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging. It was such a pleasure working with her and I was so impressed by her work, I hired her myself for my next book (coming soon!). I highly recommend her! Hope you enjoy this post. Disclosure: Affiliate links have been used below.
I work with many authors as a ghostwriter and a developmental editor. I cut my teeth in the publishing world working as an in-house fiction editor, and storytelling remains at the root of my passion. Memoir was a natural fit as I broadened my expertise in the editorial landscape—the rules of storytelling remain the same whether the content is true-to-life or from the author’s imagination.
In the past decade, readers have finally had their appetites whetted by the confessional genre of memoir. Books like Educated, Know My Name, and No Cure for Being Human have exposed readers to the personal traumas of the human condition and allowed them a window through which to watch as people like Tara, Chanel, and Kate fight to overcome their circumstances with resiliency, strength, and hope.
The genre “Creative (or Narrative) Nonfiction” (CNF) has also seen a surge in the publishing world. CNF blends the form of traditional nonfiction with the creativity of fiction. Many agents request that memoir be adapted to fit the CNF format, and this presents a critical question the author must answer to discern if this is the path they want to take with their manuscript:
Why did you write your manuscript?
Discerning Your Goals
If you are an unknown writer with little or no platform and your goal is to land a traditional publishing contract, your best bet would be to listen to your agent. The name of the game in traditional publishing—and with the agents who are pitching projects to them—is selling the most books. Publishing is a business. The goal of the publishing house and agent is to craft your book into what will be most marketable, based on trends. This isn’t a bad thing, but the way they shape your book may not align with your interests or goals.
Selling as many books as possible may sound ideal to you. Reaching readers is the point, after all, right?
Well, maybe . . .
The “why” for a memoirist can be different from other nonfiction categories. When a memoirist writes about an event and the aftermath, it is deeply personal, often painful, and can be a source of shame or fear. They are wrestling on the page with the emotions and reflections of their ordeal and, like a guide in the jungle, walking us through the dangerous and deadly while simultaneously pointing out the beauty.
Memoir Vs. Creative Nonfiction: Pros and Cons
To modify a memoir into CNF requires bringing the reader into the story and speaking to them directly. This necessarily adds another layer to the book in which the writer turns from confessor to counselor or teacher.
So why would an agent steer an author away from memoir and toward creative nonfiction? In the current trend, creative nonfiction (in the Christian market) sells better than memoir. Part of that may be the stigma of poorly selling memoirs from the ’90s or the experience of having released a memoir to low sales. (If it was a debut author, they likely didn’t have any marketing dollars allocated to the book.) No matter the reason, sales figures tell us more Christian readers are interested in having authors help them through their own challenges while also hearing about the author’s life.
I would argue that memoir also helps the reader walk through their own challenges; it is just more subtle and requires the reader to do the work without the author’s aid. That personal work has the freedom to come through any number of sources. For some, that is the preferred way to deal with personal difficulties.
I recently helped an author write her memoir—she’d miraculously lived through a natural disaster, has a huge social media following (100K+ followers, built entirely on her own), and is a dynamic, sought-after speaker. When it came time to pitch her books to agents, I felt she’d have no problem getting representation and securing a book deal.
She sent the book to two agents and both encouraged her to move away from memoir and modify the manuscript to be creative nonfiction. After hours of discussion and prayer, she decided to proceed with the book as memoir but was open to adding some reflection and a comment to the reader if it was organic to the text. But we both thought that shifting the structure of the manuscript to include sections of new material directed at the reader, simply so it would meet the formula of the CNF category, would diminish and disrupt the flow of the narrative. Once her personal story is told, she plans to write what I call “message books,” where she will help readers with their own personal growth, using her experiences and others’ as a backdrop.
What’s Your Why? Questions to Consider
So, what’s your why? Here are a few questions to consider as you decide what’s best for your manuscript:
- Why are you writing this book?
- How important is it for this book to be a stream of revenue?
- Could you live with having missed an opportunity to traditionally publish your manuscript because you were unwilling to modify it to fit the market’s trends?
- Is traditional publishing the only way you’ll feel successful? If so, why?
The tension between marketability and creativity is not easy to hold. No one can answer for you what is best for your manuscript. The bright side is that authors today have a variety of publishing options to choose from and the ability to write multiple books in different genres to test their writing styles and compare sales. Never in history has there been a time that offered as much publishing freedom as we have today.
For more on memoir and its place among genres and sales, check out this Publishers Weekly article: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/82012-memoir-uninterrupted.html
Natalie Hanemann is an award-winning editor who has worked for twenty-two years in book publishing. In 2012, she left her position as an acquisitions editor at HarperCollins Christian (formerly Thomas Nelson) to become a freelance editor. In 2022, she celebrated ten years of success and growth while also graduating with her Master’s in Theology. Find out more at nataliehanemann.com.