There’s a few things you need to know about memoir before you plan to write one. There are a huge variety of memoirs in the marketplace, and the genre varies widely. But there are a few rules of the genre that you need to know (before you can break them!).
Let’s start with a memoir that started as a work of journalism.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America started off as an investigative piece into the wage reform act in America, which then became three years of Ehrenreich trying to live on the minimum wage in a variety of unskilled labour jobs. The reason it’s so powerful is because her personal experience is weaved among what could have been a dry journalistic piece.
Tip: Many memoirs start as a personal essay that’s then stretched into a book-length work. Sarah Krasnostein’s award-winning The Trauma Cleaner started as an essay for Narratively. The Trauma Cleaner is a biography, but she’s weaved memoir throughout (i.e. her own reactions and experiences with the story), so it’s a blend. Most, if-not all, memoirs are a blend with other sub-categories of non-fiction!
So for instance, Ehrenreich’s book could have been an incredibly boring treatise on laws around minimum wages and politics, instead you were thrown head-first into life as a fifty-something female factory worker / waitress / unskilled labourer in America.
But because it was written as a memoir (you came into the topic of the wage gap in the US through Ehrenreich’s personal story and experience), you better understand the way the law in America affects people on a personal level. Her book was particularly insightful into how, once someone is trapped in the poverty cycle, even with a PhD in biology – it becomes particularly difficult to break out.
Is memoir always written in the first person?
Not necessarily. Particular scenes and chapters may be written in the first person, but when you’re ‘widening the view’ to write about societal trends or key aspects of the story (perhaps you’re weaving in self-help, or health statistics), this is generally written in the third person. A number of really beautiful literary memoirs that have been released in recent years (published by small presses) have been written as though the main character (author) is almost fictional (Clownery by Paul Hunter is an example).
Literary memoir is a true story approached with all the structural and stylistic elements of a work of fiction. That’s what makes memoir so readable.
What isn’t memoir?
- Memoir isn’t a diary (although you may use your diaries to help form parts of your memoir.)
- Memoir isn’t your life story from birth to adulthood or death. This is one of the most common misconceptions people have about writing their memoir. It’s about one aspect of your life, or a journey or challenge or question or theme. Memoir is not your entire life story.
- Memoir isn’t your autobiography – ex-US Presidents and Royalty and famous sports stars get to have their autobiographies written, but that’s not memoir.
- Memoir isn’t a biography of another person, but you may blend biography with memoir. This is one thing I’ve had to explore in detail with my memoir, A Letter From Paris. A few reader reviews have mentioned how annoyed they were that I “kept” coming into dad’s story. It’s a memoir: It’s my experience of getting to know my dad. It’s not his biography, although in the process of my getting to know him, the reader does, too.
- Finally, memoir isn’t made-up. It’s lived experience, written stylistically with the conventions of a traditional novel. This means chronology can be played with, flashbacks used, the structure follows story conventions and you can use alliterations and mise en scene (much like you would in a movie) illustrate a scene or feeling or turning point. Yes, it’s truth, but it’s truth of feeling, you’re after the most. Authenticity.
Good memoirs show, just as much as they tell, a personal story. This is why when you’ve worked as a journalist for a number of years, it can be hard to shift into the deeply personal and creative writing mode it takes to write memoir. Journalists are taught “just the facts” in the exposition of a story (tell, don’t show). Memoir takes a lot more work, psychological deep-diving, and showing, not telling. Example: “It was very cold in the apartment” (Telling). “The frost on the windows gave the apartment a tomb-like quality: my breath steamed forth like i was in an enclosed space.”
Memoir is truth
“If I’d rather wear veils, I should write fiction. I write out of the sure knowledge that the more honest I am, the freer I am, and the freer I am, the happier I am.”
Kate Christensen, bestselling memoirist
Memoir is truth, and that’s why everyone loves to read it.
Yes, every piece of what we call ‘truth’ is filtered through our experiences, and you can change names and even time-frames to keep the story rolling along better (and avoid a defamation suit), but the goal with memoir should be to write as authentically and as honestly as possible, so that your truth resonates with others on a number of universal levels.
After all, the reason so many people read memoir is they want to know how you dealt with a particular problem or idea or experience on a detailed and personal level.
To explain it in the most simple form, memoir is a book-length work of personal writing where you focus on a particular lesson, theme, question or issue from your life, and come to some sense of conclusion or resolution about it at the end. One of my favourite literary memoirs is Mary Karr’s Lit.
Still want to write one? Stay tuned for more on how to begin, what to include, how to structure it, and more about memoir. I love to write memoir, and write about writing memoir (!).
Did you have different ideas about what memoir is / isn’t? I’d love to hear your thoughts!