From Memories to Memoirs, Part 1 — What is Memoir?


Our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness, Is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story.   ~Daniel Taylor

I believe that everyone’s lives, however “ordinary,” are filled with experiences that speak to universal human experience and are therefore interesting to other people. Today I’m beginning a ten-part article series intended to help you begin writing about some of these meaningful experiences in your life. Over the next ten weeks or so, I’ll discuss memory-triggering techniques and writing exercises to explore the stories your memories have to tell and (hopefully) help you get started telling them.

I know it’s  a busy time of year, and it might seem strange to begin a ten-part article just before Christmas, yet it’s also a reflective time of year —a time when we think back over what we’ve done and achieved during the previous year; a time when we think forward to the new year. If you have a little down time between now and the New Year, you might consider embarking on some memoir writing during the next few weeks. And if you don’t have time now, bookmark this post and come back to it when you do.

What is Memoir?

In its simplest definition, memoir is a written account of an aspect, period, or series of events from your life. An autobiography, on the other hand, is an account of your entire life. Memoir can be centered on certain people, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, and colleagues, or themes, such as marriage, divorce, death, and loss.

A memoir is an attempt to express your perception of the truth as remembered, while autobiography sticks more to the facts. Of course, it is important to remain as factual as possible in memoir, but because memoir is an accounting of memory — and memory is understood to be faulty and inaccurate at best — we also understand that memoir may express your experiential truth while, at the same time, not necessarily being factually accurate. (Did she really wear a red dress that day, or is it only the way I remember it?)

Writing about a sequence of events over a particular period of time, in an of itself, does not make a memoir. A memoir that is a story reveals or explores something about our humanity. It’s an expression of what matters about those events.

E.M. Forster famously said about plot (I’m paraphrasing): “The king died and then the queen died” is not a story. However, “The king died and then the queen died of grief” brings meaning to the events. They become story. Memoir applies the elements of story to your own life.

Truth in Memoir

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach writes, “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is. Beauty—of form, of language, of meaning—always takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.” (p13, italics mine.)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about truth in memoir. And we all know the story of James Frey, who became the poster child of what not to do when writing memoir. It’s never acceptable to fabricate events or exaggerate something beyond what we remember or know to be true in order to make something more dramatic or interesting. On the other hand, a child’s memories of an event may naturally be exaggerated, compressed (where several events are remembered as one), or in other ways untrue to the facts. In this case, the memories themselves are true. When a writer puts those memories to the page, she acknowledges the fact that she is writing from the child’s viewpoint. Her memories of events are part of her personal story, as much as the events themselves.

Journaling/Writing/Discussion Prompts

  • What, for you, is the essence of “memoir”?
  • Where is your personal line between “the truth” and “the facts”?
  • What kinds of research can you perform to assist with writing your memories?
  • If you find out that a memory is inaccurate, how might you still write about that memory as true?

Photo Credit: ZedZap. via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

5 responses to “From Memories to Memoirs, Part 1 — What is Memoir?

  1. Well done Amber. I will share with both writing and non-writing friends on FB. A good explanation of “memoir”. My book shelves are filled with this genre and one day I hope to see my own in print. Cheers!

  2. The Bill Roorbach quote in your lovely piece is very important for new memoir writers to understand, so I will repeat it here: “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is. Beauty—of form, of language, of meaning—always takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.” As a memoir editor, I find that nearly all memoir writers hold the mistaken belief that their story is unique and, therefore, worth telling. It never is. Countless people have had the same experiences–bad marriages, alcoholic and abusive relations, parents with dementia, drug-addicted or physically/mentally challenged children. The details are NOT unique. What is unique is how the memoirist tells the story, how she makes it her own. It isn’t enough to write so she can “get it off her chest” or because she thinks it will somehow help others; she has to show readers why her story is worth their time reading. A memoir must be so much more than a repetition of journal entries. Now she is writing for an audience and she must keep that audience in mind at all times. This is where most first-time memoirists fail.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Judy. I agree. In order to be successful, a memoir must engage readers on more than one level — recognition (I’ve been there, done that, seen that, feel that way), fascination (wow, what an interesting life/situation!), entertainment (humor), and/or enlightenment (a message of growth and transformation), to name a few possibilities.

  3. Pingback: From Memories to Memoirs, Part 2 — Mapping Your Story | Telling HerStories: The Broad View

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