If you’re writing a memoir, or thinking about it, then perhaps the best place to start is with the genre itself.
What is a memoir? A memoir is a story drawn from real life. That means a memoir is nonfiction. It’s truthful, not made-up, and not a dramatization of actual events.
A memoir is also creative nonfiction. “Creative,” for the record, has nothing to do with creation. It has to do with the way it’s written. Creative nonfiction uses creative writing techniques—like scene, setting, dialogue, characters, etc.—to tell what really happened.
And memoir tells a story about real life, which means a memoir has all the elements of story. The actual events are shaped and told to communicate a universal truth. Memoir shows a character overcome an obstacle and change in some way. Memoir has a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. In this way, reading memoir is a lot like reading a novel. And writing memoir isn’t so different either, except for the whole thing about not making stuff up.
Memoir vs. Autobiography
Memoir reads like a novel—it’s written in scenes, uses setting, develops characters, and employs other creative writing techniques. And, like novels and all stories, the premise can be communicated succinctly. This means a memoir looks at one aspect of the writer’s life, reaches for one universal truth, instead of summarizing the writer’s whole life.
Autobiographies are usually more comprehensive than what a memoir would be, spanning the subject’s entire life, rather than looking at one aspect of it the way a memoir does.
The two are different from a publishing perspective as well. An autobiography of a person who isn’t famous will only be interesting to that person’s family members. So if you’re writing an autobiography that chronicles your entire life, perhaps you shouldn’t write with the goal of a big publishing contract. Memoir probably has more publishing opportunities, and you don’t have to be famous to write a publishable memoir.
Memoir or Fiction
The line between memoir and fiction is much debated. Some view it as hard and clearly defined; others see the line as blurry and even permeable. In the most basic terms, memoir is nonfiction and factual, while fiction is made up. When does memoir writing become fiction? As soon as you start making things up.
So for memoir, there are no composite characters, no inventions, no exaggerations. And memoir writing—crafting a story about your life—is as much about what you put in the book as it is an exercise in leaving things out. But that doesn’t mean you can leave out something that shapes the truth. The goal is rendering your memories as truthfully and honestly as possible.
But what if you don’t remember? And what about little things, like recreating dialogue? How do you get around the fallibility of memory? Aim for truth. Sure, you can recreate dialogue, as long as you indicate that the conversation “went something like this.” Be open and honest about what you remember and what you don’t. And do a little research.
What questions do you have about writing memoir? Let me know in the comments.