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What Is a Memoir?
A memoir is a nonfiction book that presents a firsthand retelling of a period in an author’s own life. It does not document the memoirist’s entire life story but rather a selected era or a specific multi-era journey. Alternatively, a memoir may concern its author’s entire life but through a particular lens—such as the events leading up to and surrounding their professional career. As such, a memoir is comparatively focused when considered side-by-side with an autobiography.
The best memoirs tend to cast their own authors as main characters, but there are exceptions to this rule. In particular, memoir writers may opt to write about a real life period when they were working in the service of a more powerful person—for instance a U.S. president—and that powerful boss is arguably the focal character of the memoir. However, by anchoring the story around personal stories that directly involve themselves, authors are able to justify their role as first person narrators.
Memoir vs. Autobiography
A memoir is closely related to the nonfiction format known as autobiography, but the two forms are not identical. Most notably, an autobiography is a first person account of its author’s entire life. This is not to say that autobiographies treat all eras of a person’s life with equal importance. A professional athlete may document her entire life in her autobiography, but she may give special emphasis to eras she believes will grab the reader’s interest, such as the summer she competed in the Olympic Games.
If that same athlete had opted for memoir writing instead, she may have focused the entire memoir around those Olympic games. Rather than function as the story of the author’s life from birth to the present, her memoir would focus on retelling the period in her life she is most known for.
3 Examples of Memoirs
Memoirs are written by authors from all walks of life—some internationally famous, some anything but. A good memoir doesn’t hinge on the fame or notoriety of its author; it hinges on a compelling story, a clear point of view, and a level of insight that could not be offered by someone else writing about the same events. The following are some strong memoir examples:
- The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion’s 2005 personal memoir is an account of the year following her husband John Gregory Dunne’s death, which occurred during her daughter Quintana’s hospitalization and subsequent death. Didion’s heart wrenching true story became a critical favorite, lauded in publications ranging from the New York Times to the London Review of Books.
- Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: Published in 1989 by William Styron, who was famous to readers as the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, and The Confessions of Nat Turner, this memoir was not the first time Styron had written about his own crippling depression. The book grew out of a personal essay and lecture Styron had previously drafted. Styron presents his illness with painful honesty, interweaving descriptions of his own experiences with flashbacks to the struggles of his family members, most notably his father.
- Magnificent Desolation: In this 2009 memoir, astronaut Buzz Aldrin reflects on his life as a member of the United States Apollo missions and in the years that followed. The glory of landing on the moon is juxtaposed with the depression and alcoholism that followed. Aldrin anchors his story between these two events, focusing on their significance to his personal journey instead of creating an all-encompassing autobiography.
How to Write a Memoir
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The word “memoir” comes from the French word for “memory,” so the logical first step in writing your own memoir is to search your memory for the events and time periods that have most shaped you. To that end, here are six writing tips to help you tell your story via the medium of a memoir:
1. Choose a Period in Your Life That Feels Especially Unique to You.
Strong memoirs talk about parts of a person’s life that could not have happened to anyone else. If you’re writing about a universal experience—coming-of-age, love, loss—consider the unique perspective you bring to the subject matter.
2. Outline the Structure of Your Memoir.
This will help you determine if you have enough stories and thoughts to fill a full book. It’s possible that the era you’ve selected will make a great short story. But if, via outlining, you can see that you have a full book on your hands, proceed forward.
3. Research the Period You’ll Be Writing About.
A great way to do this is to interview people you were around during the events of the memoir. These could be colleagues, family members, or even adversaries (such as in a sports memoir). Recording others’ perspectives on your own life can be particularly important if you’re writing about something in the distant past (such as your high school years) as opposed to something that happened within the past two years that you remember quite clearly.
4. Remember That This Is Not a Diary Entry.
Although you are presumably the main character of your memoir, you are not the audience. As you begin your first draft, consider the perspective of someone who doesn’t know you well, and ask yourself what would feel compelling to them. Steer clear of self indulgence.
5. Seek Outside Perspectives.
Typically it’s good to write a first draft of your memoir, take a few days off, read it back to yourself, and then dive into a second draft. Once you’ve completed the second draft, however, it’s time for outside eyes. Send your draft to some trusted friends—even a professional editor if you have one—and receive their notes with an open mind.
6. Remember Who Your Audience Is.
With humility, you’ll understand that events aren’t necessarily interesting simply because they happened to you personally. You need to find exciting and riveting points of emphasis to keep your audience invested. Respect your audience and they’ll reward you with their attention and emotional investment.
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