Mary Gottschalk asks: Is it memoir or fiction?

The subject matter of Mary Gottschalk’s guest post really hits home for me. I turned to memoir based on a traumatic incident in my life after a 30-career in technical writing, and now I’ve embarked on a novel based in part on factual events. I agree with Mary. I would not have attempted a novel had I not had the memoir writing experience. I hope those of you working on both memoir and fiction will learn as much as I did from Mary’s piece.

Also, in welcoming Mary to Choices, please join me in congratulating her on just releasing her novel, A Fitting Place, in May of this year and publishing her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam in 2008.

Is it a Story or an Idea?

By Mary Gottschalk

Because the inspiration for my first novel came from an incident in my own life, I’m often asked why I chose to do A Fitting Place as a fiction rather than a memoir. Another frequent question since I have published both a novel and a memoir is which is the better vehicle for a story that has some basis in fact.


I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer, but perhaps my experience will help some authors debating that same question.

While I’ve been a prolific writer since childhood, most of my work has been in the service of education and the business world, based on my analytical skills and logical mind. I saw myself as literal rather than imaginative. It never dawned on me that I could or would write a novel.

Indeed, an interest in any type of creative writing only emerged in my early 60s, when I decided to share the lessons I learned when I abandoned a successful career to circumnavigate the world in a small sailboat.

That extraordinary mid-life journey was an easy story to tell.  It had a definable beginning and end, with some pretty tense moments along the way. I knew who the important characters were and what they were like. The events and the scenes were constrained by reality. My job was to connect the dots, not make them up.

And connecting the dots seemed a daunting enough challenge.  Business writing doesn’t have to define a story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that would propel the story forward. Financial reports did not require sympathetic characters with strengths that would elicit admiration and foibles that would garner empathy. In a world where clients had to read what I wrote, I knew nothing about techniques for creating tension and keeping the reader turning the page.

If I wanted Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be well written to read like fiction I had a lot to learn about the writerly craft.


One challenging task was culling the 400 pages of my sailing journals to find the right balance between a travel adventure (the setting for the story) and a mid-life coming of age story (the purpose for writing it). I learned, by trial and error, which events moved the story forward and how it felt when my memoir began to unfold organically. I discovered that ruthlessly cutting out events that served no plot purpose often heightened the emotional truth of my story, with no damage to factual accuracy.

Another challenge was making my husband and myself come alive on the page. In part it was learning to dig deep into my own emotional core for the truth of the experience. In part it was finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. In part it was learning that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say.

Learning to be a creative writer was not easy, but a memoir creative non-fiction somehow felt manageable.

After Moonbeam was done, I continued to be haunted by the theme that had inspired it ¦ that you learn and grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. But not everyone can walk away from a career and sail off into the sunset. I wanted to explore the potential for growth as it might happen to anyone, an every woman who was hurtled out of her comfort zone by forces beyond her control, even though she never left town.

My inspiration was a brief rebound relationship after my marriage ended. Because I was not and still am not lesbian, the love affair with a woman forced me to re-examine many of my own stereotypes about gender roles as well as my own responsibility for the emotional dynamics that had caused my marriage to fail.

But I could not tell this story as a memoir. For one thing, the woman was still alive and it was not my place to tell her story. For another, that affair, unlike the sailing voyage, had little dramatic potential. There were no moments of great conflict, no crisis or climax, no clear resolution. It simply faded away over time. If I wanted a story in which the stakes were high, I had to work with fiction.

But the task no longer seemed quite so daunting. By the time I began my novel, I had solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book and for each chapter. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I still had a lot to learn, but 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.

Mary’s Bio

DSC_4440-Edit_2-2Mary 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-80s, 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.

Mary’s Books

A Fitting Place

Sailing Down the Moonbeam

Social Media Links





  1. You tell this story so well, Mary. I have read and admired Sailing Down the Moonbeam (its on my list to review it online. Sorry it has taken so long.) And I see exactly what you are saying about moving from one genre to another. You were fortunate in that your memoir had the classic hero’s journey structure built into it. You learned to extract, condense, foreshadow, and reveal, but the story itself followed the structure.

    My own memoir used a period of my life rather than a single adventure. Therefore the structure was difficult (for me, at least) to construct. I’m not sure I mastered that challenge completely. Each chapter has its own narrative arc and the themes are linked from chapter to chapter, but it is more episodic than heroic.

    I’d like to tackle a more unified story if and when I write again, regardless of genre. I hope to read your novel and gain some pointers from it with this good blog post in mind.

    As another person who write academic and institutional prose before “creative” prose, I admire your crisp word choice and organization. I can see why you could change careers often and successfully. You can write!

    Thanks, Madeline, for inviting Mary and for sharing your own writer’s journey here.

    • Shirley … thanks for those kind words … I take it as a high complement from such a polished writer. Now that you say it, I can see that yours was episodic rather than heroic, but I think you did a masterful job of getting the “chapter arc,” something I struggled with in both the memoir and the novel.

      I still have a lot to learn … and reading other good writers is one of the best ways. I shall look forward to the next “episode.”

  2. Mary, beautifully told story. I thoroughly enjoyed Sailing Down the Moonbeam and am currently reading A Fitting Place. I ponder often what it will be like after I’ve finished my memoir and want to try my hand at fiction. You have answered many questions here today. Perhaps you will allow me to bend your ear at a later date for wise counsel and guidance.

    Madeline, thanks for hosting Mary today. Together you make quite a team!

  3. Madeline Sharples says:

    Thanks Shirley and Sherrey, for coming by. Yes, I think Mary gave us all some very helpful advice here. It’s definitely a hard transition from writing memoir to writing fiction. But I like her one size doesn’t fit all attitude.
    All best to you both with your writing.

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