How Much of This is True? On the Subtle Nuances of Memoir and Autofiction

When my first book, a memoir about my time in the Marines called Eat the Apple, was published back in 2018, I did an event at Powell’s with a fellow writer, Matt Robinson, who’d written an amazing collection of stories called The Horse Latitudes. Robinson’s an Army vet and was writing about Iraq through fiction, which was obviously colored by his lived experience in some way, and that fascinated me as it seemed so much more difficult than what I’d done, which I saw as basically just spilling my guts all over the page and rooting around in them like a hog.

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For years after my enlistment, I’d tried writing fiction about the war and it all ended up trite and didactic, sounding like someone else—the writers I admired mostly. And while I think imitation can help explore things like cadence and rhythm and syntax—it doesn’t do much for a writer’s personal voice. I’m big on voice. The voicier the better. For me, it brings a piece of writing to life. That’s partly why I wrote a memoir: struggling to write fiction, I found my voice while writing nonfiction and kind of stood aside and let it do its work.

I keep seeming to find myself writing into genres that demand palettes of gray.

Fiction to me seemed so much more complicated—there are so many choices. So much breadth and depth. How do you know you’re making the right decision? The best one? The Marines taught me that any decision is better than no decision, which is all part of the mentality of being hard to kill (if you’re moving, you’re not dying, the thinking goes). It’s a good lesson for war. It’s also a good lesson for creativity. I don’t see creativity as war, but I do think our inner critic—that thing that wants to keep us from making a bad decision—often makes us slow down and think and second guess and while I do tend to revise as I write, I don’t always think that’s a good thing.

Anyway, every time I’d try to write fiction that’s what it was like, constant questioning, so, I was amazed by Robinson’s book and during our conversation I asked him to give a ratio of nonfiction and fiction in the collection.

How much of this is true? I asked.

In my defense, I asked mostly because I wanted to know how he’d done it—how had he taken this thing that was real and, at least in the weird mental gymnastics my brain had done, had less disorder, and gone and invited in the what if monster? He returned the question with nothing but side eye, which garnered a laugh from the audience, and we moved on.

It’s one of those embarrassing moments now that when I can’t sleep, visits me, gets my pulse going, makes me sigh and shake my head and think about how much I didn’t know.


After my memoir, I was ready to move on from war and the Marine Corps. I was a new dad, I’d just gotten a tenure-track teaching gig, I’d finally decided to go to therapy and deal with all kinds of other stuff—my shitty dad, my adoption, my biological parents and family who I’d met a few years before. I had other things to write about is what I’m trying to say, and I thought I’d do that in the form of another memoir, something about fathers and cycle breaking and family or whatever.

But, as so many Sergeants said to me during my time in the Marines whenever I failed to follow an order, “Fuck me, right?”*

What happened was this: I was struggling to write after I finished my first book—I’d written something intimate and vulnerable and excoriating about myself and I was finding it difficult to get myself back to that raw and revealing place where I’d made that work. I went about a year fumbling around in the dark, and then I wrote this creative nonfiction essay. It was short, and about the first days after bringing my daughter home from the hospital—that kind of scraped out animalistic isolated panic love feral survival feeling you get as a new parent where nothing exists except you and your partner and your kid (I guess I’m assuming it’s a universal thing). It had my voice, but it also felt new to me and like a direction I wanted to follow.

But then I wrote another something. This time about cutting out images of my kid’s face and pasting them into old photos from when I was in the Marines. I’m no stranger to creative nonfiction; my memoir is truth, but it’s also formally experimental and at times, imagines moments outside of my perspective. This thing I’d written though—the cutting and pasting of images—it wasn’t part of any lived experience aside from the fact that I’d been in the Marines and had a daughter. It was fiction, but it was based in my experience.

And I liked it. It was good and somehow the voice was the same as the essay about my little family’s homecoming. I don’t know where the new thing came from—sleep deprivation, delirium, fear, lack of distance (spatial and temporal) from the subject—but it was the same thing as when that memoir voice popped up when I probing around experimentally and I finally found the form of my first book. What am I doing? I asked myself. What is this? Is this a memoir? Is it something else? How much of this is true?

I shrugged my shoulders and kept writing—which I think was a good impulse, but now I’m anticipating the question at the heart of this essay and I don’t have the charisma to pull off a good side eye. When I do that, I come off seeming like a dick.


How much of ourselves is a part of anything we write? Did that moment really happen? How much of it happened? Is that a real person? Is that based in your experience? Does it matter? Why do people need to know? Why can’t people separate the writing from the writer?

Autofiction has given me permission to blur the lines.

Those questions nag me because they echo my own doubts. Right now, it seems like everyone is constantly seeking black-and-white, the easily digestible. With information overload, the grind economy, seemingly endless war and violence and general awfulness, people want to know what side they’re on. Yes or no? Left or right? Good or bad? Fact or fiction?

But I keep seeming to find myself writing into genres that demand palettes of gray.

How much of this is true?

As if the measure of a story’s worth lies in its adherence to fact—because that’s what someone means when they ask that question about something’s truth. They want to know that the story is unimpeachable. They want to know they’re on the right side. They want to know they’re not a sucker.

But the question misses the point and instead centers our ego and seeks to edify a belief that fiction is somehow lesser than reality when we equally construct both. Everything is, on some level, fiction. Especially after it’s been filtered through individual experience. We are all unreliable narrators, recounting our stories through the filters of perception and memory. Mostly, whether someone believes you only has to do with how well you can tell your story.


The thing that got me writing again after my first book, that got me back to that open vulnerable place where my voice was waiting, wasn’t just the freedom to fabricate that comes with autofiction—that was actually paralyzing at times, all those infinite choices. For me, it was about exploring the elasticity of memory, the fluidity of identity, and the complexity of trying to pin down truth in narrative form. Though I don’t think I could’ve articulated that when I was writing.

Autofiction has given me permission to blur the lines, to acknowledge that my life, like anyone’s, is not a neatly plotted narrative but a series of fractured vignettes, some factual, some embellished, but all true to some kind of emotional reality.

How much of this is true? None of it. All of it.


End of Active Service by Matt Young is available from Bloomsbury Publishing.

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