What is a Memoir? True Life Stories, Minus the Boring Parts
What is a Memoir? True Life Stories, Minus the Boring Parts
A memoir is a story written from the author's perspective about a particular aspect of their own life. There’s nothing more difficult than that, so you can quit reading now if you want. But if you remain with us, we'll go a bit deeper.
Are you still here? great.
Memoirs are typically regarded to be factual narratives as a sort of nonfiction, however there is some wriggle area in this respect. There is no need for the author, for example, to present an objectively balanced account of the past — a memoir is just a rendition of events as the author recalls them. In reality, the name derives from the French word "memoir," which meaning "reminiscence" or "remember."
Before we go any further, here are a handful of well-known memoir samples, some of which you may recognize:
· Henry David Thoreau's Walden;
· Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes
· Michelle Obama's Becoming;
· Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love; and
· Cheryl Strayed's book, "Wild,"
You might easily mistake any of these popular memoirs for a book since they all include a storyline, characters, themes, imagery, and conversation. We prefer to conceive of memoirs as both factual and fiction.
The focus on narrative in memoir is frequently stated to distinguish it from autobiography, although there are many more significant distinctions to be aware of. After all, a good autobiography should tell a story.
What distinguishes a memoir from an autobiography?
Memoirs and autobiographies are often available on the same bookshop shelves and, as a result, are frequently confused in the minds of writers. But we can assure you that they are not the same thing. While both are records of the writer's experiences, autobiographies often cover the author's whole life, including the who-what-where-when-why of each stage in chronological sequence.
Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom is an autobiography in which he describes his childhood, his years as a freedom fighter, his time in jail, and eventually the intricate negotiations that led to his release and the beginning of the end of apartheid.
In contrast, a memoir is more selective in its timeframe. The autobiography's limitations are eased, enabling writers to extensively examine a significant event or a specific aspect of their life, letting their ideas and emotions take control of the story. For example, Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill follows his research leading up to the # Me-too movement, but William Finnegan's Barbarian Days is a soaring hymn to his one great passion and obsession—surfing.
A brief history of the memoir
To trace the memoir's beginnings, we'll need to put on our finest togas and board a chariot back to ancient Rome. Yes, memoirs have been around at least since the first century BC, when Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars gave a play-by-play of each battle and a look into the mind of one of Rome's most active commanders.
Memoirs were still produced by the governing classes from the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, interpreting historical events in which they had a part or were closely watched. The gentry, who had the advantages of free time, literacy, and spare cash, would record court occurrences and intrigues, as well as the many military crusades. The French excelled in particular, with diplomats, knights, and historians like Philippe de Commines and Blaise de Montluc taking the chance to solidify their legacy.
Inscriptions started to center around individuals rather than events in the 17th century, albeit the emphasis was often not on the author's own life but on the people around him. Once again, the French seized the lead, this time with the Duc de Saint-Simon, who is known for his insightful character studies of Louis XIV's court. (Think journal entries full of gossip and petty intrigue.)
Julius Caesar starred Julia Roberts.
This elite posse of memoirists grew throughout time to include notable professions such as politicians and businesspeople (it was still always males) who sought to write memoirs of their own public adventures. This wasn't the case with Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, which came out in 1854 and was about his two-year stay in a hut in the woods of Massachusetts.
In his book Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda sketches a family tree in his book, pinning Walden as a forerunner to the modern success of spiritual and "schtick lit" memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love and Gretchen Ruben's The Happiness Project, as well as the long literary tradition of "My year of..." memoirs that gave us Joan Didion's the Year of Magical Thinking. Yagoda also says that these spiritual memoirs can be traced back to Augustine's Confessions, which came out in A.D. 397. In this book, Augustine admits that he was a rebellious teenager who ate stolen pears before he found the way to Christianity.
What is Yagoda's point? Once a memoir type arises, it will continue to create subgenres. Adam Kay's recent medical bestseller, this is Going to Hurt, for example, has traces of the professional memoir and the fragmented journal. One thing all memoirs have in common is that they enable us to get to know a stranger on an intimate level, which appeals to our curious nature and will likely never grow old.
Popular memoir subgenres include
Though there is no comprehensive list of memoir subgenres, most works will fall into one of three major categories—with lots of overlap.
Many readers like books that transport them to another time and place, either to show them what life was like in the past or to mirror their own experiences back at them. Nostalgia memoirs are memoirs that satisfy this yearning.
Books that depict a difficult period in the author's life aren't meant to depress the reader, but rather to demonstrate triumph over adversity. The idea of redemption comes up almost always in these books, and the act of writing the book is often the last redeeming part of their journey.
Celebrity autobiographies have a ready-made audience eager to learn more about their heroes' exploits. That's not to mean they're a running commentary on the author's daily life (you can get that on social media). Instead, they tell juicy stories about how they became popular and successful, preferably with the help of other well-known people.
This style of memoir is unabashedly daring. Often, the author exposes a sad or difficult secret—maybe a problem with addiction or sexual identity — or lays their history open, possibly shedding light on the dynamics of a shattered family.
The author isn't the main attraction in a trip memoir; the setting is. There are no limits beyond that—this last subgenre gives a lot of possibilities for authors who have got the travel bug.
Why should you write a memoir?
The list could go on, but it should be clear by now how varied the memoir genre is. There are several paths an author may follow, and hence numerous reasons why you might decide to pick up your pen and write a memoir. Here are a few examples:
To remember and reinforce a memory of a certain period in your life;
· To leave your family with a meaningful story or lesson;
· To record your journeys or a once-in-a-lifetime adventure;
· To discuss something sad or difficult, or simply,
· To write a compelling tale that will ring true with readers.
In the latest instalment of our memoir series, we provide 21 examples of memoirs that may inspire you to write your own. After all, now that we've deconstructed the genre and made this fancy French term less intimidating, it may be time for you to write the tale of your life—and learn how to do it properly. "Book Publishing Company"