- “If I write about what really happened, people will know I’m a failure.”
- “If I write about my ex-boss, will I be sued?”
- “If I try to share what I’ve learnt, it’ll be old news. No one wants that.”
I decided to help her by analysing the kind of book she wanted to write. In particular, she wanted to understand the difference between fiction, non-fiction, a memoir and an autobiography.
I want to tell a story
We started with fiction. Like Sara, many people think these are story books or novels. That is, generally, true. Novels can be broken down into two broad types:
a) A plot-based novel where the events often appear in a sensible order and the emphasis is on the pace of the story, the twists and the plot.
b) A character-based novel where characters behaviour is analysed and the emphasis is on creating detailed, sympathetic and multi-layered personalities.
It is not necessarily true that every part of a novel is made up. Let’s look at my first book, ‘The Banana Leaf Men’. I started writing what I observed happening around me. Then, I took this new story apart, applied the elements of fiction and put it back together to create a completely new work of fiction.
A good example of non-fiction work is ‘Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund’. It is a series of stories about life with my dog. They were true and the events did happen. As such, they were classified as ‘non-fiction’.
Sara, shook her head. “No. I don’t want to write fiction. I want to tell the truth about what happened in the company. I also want to share my knowledge. About managing people. About debt collection. What kind of story is that?”
What kind of story do I tell?
Now that we’d established that she did not want to write fiction, we decided to explore the difference between a biography, an autobiography and a memoir.
A biography is an account of someone written by someone else. A good example is ‘Mad Heaven: Biography of Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr. M. Mahadevan’. I was the author of this book and it was an account of the life of the man who was once the Chief Psychiatrist to the Government of Malaysia.
Ten years after this book was published, Tan Sri Mahadevan decided that he wanted to update the story and fill in a few more details. This time, he decided to self-publish the book. The new book has a similar title: ‘Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life by Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Azlanii Dr. M. Mahadevan’.
“But I don’t want to tell people my whole story. No one needs to know when and where I was born. I just want to tell them what happened in the last ten years of my life,” said Sara.
This statement by Sara brings me to the third option: a memoir. This is defined as ‘a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources.’
The perfect example is ‘Joseph Anton’ by Salman Rushdie. The story starts with the day the fatwa was declared and it ends with the day it was lifted. The story in between is an honest account of the much-celebrated writer’s highs and lows, both personal and professional, during this time.
Not my story at all
Sometimes, when people choose to write a story, it doesn’t have to be theirs and it doesn’t even have to be a biography. Take a book like ‘50 Years National Mosque: 1965 – 2015’ by Ar Azim A Aziz. This is a coffee-table book about the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and chronicles the journey of the architect who designed the National Mosque – Dato’ (Dr.) Ar Hj Baharuddin Abu Kassim. Aziz not only told the story of how an iconic building was built, but provided some of the behind-the-scenes photos of the interaction among people who were important in Malaysian history like Tunku Abdul Rahman Al-Haj, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Sambanthan.
Hearing all this, Sara reflected on the kind of book she wanted to write. During our next session, we discussed her worry about whether or not anyone would be really interested in reading her story. That is what we discussed next.
Join the Conversation
Share the kind of stories, be they memoirs, biographies or autobiographies, that you have enjoyed reading.
- Mohamad, Tun Dr Mahathir. A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.MPH Group Publishing (8 April 2011)
- Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st THUS edition (10 September 2013)
- Mahadevan, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri AzlaniiDr. M. Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life. (2014)
- Sundararaj, Aneeta. Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund. (28 August 2013)
- Azim, Aziz A. Masjid Negara : 50 Years (1965 - 2015). ATSA Architects Sdn. Bhd.; First edition (September 5, 2015)
Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The memoir Sara decided to write was about the events during the last few months in her company. It would start from the time her boss first started to criticise her work until the time she was booted out of the company. The story would start from October 2016 and go on until May 2017.
Here are some examples of autobiographies and biographies about some of Asia’s famous :
- Marino, Andy. Narendra Modi : A Political Biography. Harpercollins (6 April 2014)
- Kuan Yew, Lee.The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Prentice Hall; 1st edition (October 14, 1998)
- Singh, Khushwant. Truth, Love and a Little Malice Penguin Books India (May 30, 2003)
- Mohamad, Tun Dr Mahathir. A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. MPH Group Publishing (8 April 2011)
- Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st edition (10 September 2013)
- Mahadevan, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Azlanii Dr. M. Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life. (2014)
Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).