Memoir has been a popular genre in the past decade and with good reason. The word memoir means “memory” or “reminiscence”––basically remembering a part of one’s life and putting it down on paper. It differs from an autobiography which tells the entire story on a person’s life because memoir is just a slice of a person’s life. It is a more flexible form of telling a life story and can often focus on just a certain time period or a certain experience.
Throughout history memoirs tended to focus on lives of political figures or military leaders. The exploits of that person were recorded for all to read. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was a memoir of a time when he lived alone in the woods and reflected on the political issues of his day. Memoirs can be serious or humorous, intended to teach and inform or to entertain.
Some memoirs have become popular because they showcase a certain era or, in the case of Elie Wiesel’s Night, they expose a great tragedy of human history. Memoirs should be true, although they rely on the author’s memory, so may sometimes be as close to the truth as the author can make them. In the famous case of James Frey and his book, A Million Little Pieces, the author was exposed for creating a fiction piece and calling it a memoir. In other words, he was lying.
William Zinsser, noted author, says in writing a memoir to “think small.” That is, the author must not try to tell everything that has happened in his or her life, but focus on a theme or a time period and tell that story. The author tells of impressions, experiences, lessons learned and much more. Zinsser goes on to say, “memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense––childhood, for instance, or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn’t possible in autobiography.”
There are basic types of memoir. Many memoirs are a coming of age story. An author tells their experiences when moving from childhood to adulthood. Then there are place memoirs such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which describe her experiences in a certain location. There are relationship memoirs about one’s relationship with a certain person or group of people and there are adversity memoirs about illnesses, addictions or abuse.
As you can see, a memoir is highly personal and can tell about virtually anything that has happened in a person’s life. Writing a memoir gives the author an opportunity to reflect on a portion of his or her life and share it with readers. A memoir is not just outward experience, but also internal changes and turning points. A memoir can be written at any time of life and is a wonderful way to tell your story for future generations.
Try your own hand at writing a memoir. What was your life like as a child? What lessons did you learn during your 20’s? What experiences have you had in raising a family, starting a business, pursuing your hobbies? Who has impressed you and had an impact on your life? The topics are endless. You may enjoy reading Joy De Kok’s book on memoir writing entitled, Your Life a Legacy. Go ahead, give it a try. You might find that you have some terrific stories to share with others.