Understanding character and memoir

What is memoir? Accounts of lived experiences tend to vary enormously, even between those who were present. Subjectivity means no two individuals will share the exact same memory and this renders ‘memoir’ a quite slippery concept. While it has much in common with autobiography and reportage, memoir is neither a whole-of-life account, nor an on-the-spot series of events, but something else again.

Most importantly, unlike autobiography or reportage, the memoir writer usually has a purpose, a reason for the reader to engage with their experiences. Sometimes, as with ‘grief’ or ‘recovery’ memoir, the point is clear to the reader: it is to experience how the writer overcame a set of difficult circumstances. However, with ‘literary’ memoir, often produced by well-known or established authors, the point or ‘themes’ at play in the text can be more obscure or abstract. However, with established writers and well-known individuals there is always the implied question: how did you win that gold medal/write that book/achieve that elevated position in life?

In order to better understand what you are doing when you write memoir, let’s start with a definition:

A “book understood by its author, its publisher and its readers to be a factual account of the author’s life.” Memoir: a history by Ben Yagoda (Riverhead Books USA 2009).

This definition encompassed all the opportunity and limitations of writing real life experiences:

  • ‘A book understood by its author, its publisher and its readers…’ so, there is an unspoken contract or understanding at play
  • 'a factual account’ …. this understanding is that the book will be ‘true’
  • ‘of the author’s life’ – that the book is your version of events about things which happened to YOU.

So, memoir is a truth-telling form, and this assumes a relationship of trust between the writer and the reader. But, as I said above, it still demands a great deal of creativity.

In summary:

  • Memoir is about lived experience, but not usually a comprehensive ‘whole of life’ history (this would be closer to what is understood as ‘autobiography’).
  • Memoir isn’t the same as essays, social media posts, blogging, journalism, diaries, journaling… but can incorporate some or all of them. These are forms of writing which are responsive to events as they occur, or very close in time to them. Memoir is more meditative and aims to stay relevant over time.
  • Memoir is ‘true’ but can be highly surreal or impressionistic. It is space for the human experience to be expressed in all of its complexity, joy and mystery.

Complete and continue