What is a Memoir? True Life Stories, Minus the Boring Parts
A memoir is a narrative written from the author's perspective about a particular facet of their own life. Nothing more complicated than that — so you can stop reading now if you like. But if you stick around, we’ll dive a little deeper.
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As a type of nonfiction, memoirs are generally understood to be factual accounts, but there’s a significant amount of wiggle room in this regard. For example, there’s no obligation for the author to provide an objectively balanced account of the past — a memoir is merely a version of events as the author remembers them. In fact, the term comes from the French word “mémoire,” which means “memory,” or “reminiscence.”
To give you a touchstone before we go any further, here are a couple of famous memoir examples, some of which you might recognize:
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau;
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt;
- Becoming by Michelle Obama;
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; and
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking any of these popular memoirs for a novel — since, just like novels, they have a plot, characters, themes, imagery, and dialogue. We like to think of memoirs as nonfiction by name and fiction by nature.
Memoir’s emphasis on storytelling is sometimes said to differentiate it from autobiography, but there are much more important differences to be aware of. After all, a good autobiography ought to weave a narrative, too.
Why is a memoir not an autobiography?
Memoirs and autobiographies are usually found on the same shelves of the bookstore and so are often conflated in the minds of authors. But we’re here to tell you that they’re not the same thing. While both are accounts of the writer's experiences, autobiographies tend to span their entire life, providing the who-what-where-when-why of each stage in chronological order.
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is an example of an autobiography: it details his childhood, his years as a freedom fighter, as well as those spent in prison, and finally, the complex negotiations that led to his release and the beginning of the end of apartheid.
A memoir, on the other hand, is more selective with its timeline. The constraints of the autobiography are loosened, and authors can intimately explore a pivotal moment or a particular facet of their life, allowing their thoughts and feelings to take control of the narrative. For example, journalist Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill chronicles his investigation leading up to the #MeToo movement, while William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is a soaring ode to his one great love and obsession — surfing.
A quick biography of the memoir
To trace the memoir back to its origins, we’ll need to don our best togas and hitch a chariot ride back to ancient Rome. That’s right, memoirs have been around since at least the first century BC when Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars offered not only a play-by-play of each battle but a peek into the mind of one of Rome’s most dynamic leaders.
During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, memoirs continued to be written by the ruling classes, who interpreted historical events they played a role in or closely observed. The gentry — who had the luxuries of free time, literacy, and spare funds — would document the events and machinations of court, as well as the many military crusades. It was the French who particularly excelled, with diplomats, knights, and historians, such as Philippe de Comminnes and Blaise de Montluc, seizing the opportunity to cement their legacy.
From the 17th century, memoirs began to revolve around people rather than events, though typically, the focus was not on the author’s own life but on the people around him. Once again, the French took the lead — namely, Duc de Saint-Simon, who has received literary fame for his penetrating character sketches of the court of Louis XIV. (Think diary entries packed with petty intrigue and rumor-mongering.)
From Julius Caesar to Julia Roberts
As time wore on, this elite posse of memoirists came to include noted professionals, such as politicians and businessmen (it was still always men), who wanted to publish accounts of their own public exploits. The exception to this model was Henry David Thoreau's 1854 memoir Walden — an account of the two years he spent in a Massachusetts cabin, finding fulfillment in the wilderness.
In his book Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda sketches a family tree pinning Walden as a precursor 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 traces the roots of these spiritual memoirs back even further to The Confessions of St Augustine written in A.D. 397, in which Augustine admits to a sinful youth spent munching stolen pears (gasp) before finding the path to Christianity.
Yagoda’s point? Once a memoir type emerges, it’ll keep spawning subgenres. Traces of the professional memoir and the fragmentary diary, for example, can be found in Adam Kay’s recent medical bestseller This is Going to Hurt. One thing that all memoirs have in common, however, is that they allow us to get to know a stranger on an intimate level — a prospect that appeals to our nosy side and will likely never get old.
Popular memoir subgenres
Though there’s no definitive list of memoir subgenres, there are several broad types that most titles will fall under — with plenty of room for overlap.
Many readers like a book that transports them to another time and place, either to show them what life was like, or to see their own experiences reflected back at them. Memoirs that quench this thirst are called nostalgia memoirs.
'Boy' by Roald Dahl evokes the author’s schoolboy days in the 1920s and 30s, revealing a habit for mischief mirrored by many of his beloved characters. This memoir might also fall into the ‘childhood’ or ‘celebrity’ subgenres.
Books that depict a challenging time in the author’s life aren’t intended to bum the reader out — but instead, show triumph over adversity. These memoirs almost always include the theme of redemption, with the writing of the book itself often serving as the final redemptive chapter in their story.
'Girl, Interrupted' by Susanna Kaysen recounts the author’s enduring battle with mental illness and her 18-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. It was adapted in 1999 into a critically-acclaimed film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie — which is a pretty cool ending to Kaysen’s redemptive arc.
Celebrity memoirs have a ready-made fanbase dying to hear more about their idols’ escapades. That isn’t to say they provide a running commentary on the author’s day-to-day life (you’ll find that on social media). Rather, they cover all the important moments in their rise to fame and success, interspersed with juicy stories (ideally featuring other famous faces).
'Just Kids' by renaissance woman of the punks Patti Smith is a beautiful recollection of her lifelong friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — a relationship that would carry them both to international success.
This type of memoir is unapologetically bold. Often the author shares a painful or difficult secret — perhaps a grapple with addiction or a struggle with sexual identity — or lays their past bare, maybe shining a light on the dynamics of a broken family.
'Running with Scissors' is the story of Augusten Burroughs’s childhood after his mother sent him to be raised by her psychiatrist, a certifiable lunatic living in perfect squalor.
In a travel memoir, the author isn’t the star of the show: the place is. Beyond that, there really are no rules — this final subgenre opens up a world of possibilities for writers who have caught the travel bug.
'The Great Railway Bazaar' by Paul Theroux documents a trip of personal discovery made in the 1970s — a time before the West had embraced the places, peoples, food, faiths, and cultures of the East — from London to East Asia (and back again) by train.
Why write a memoir?
The list goes on, but it should already be apparent just how versatile the memoir genre is. There are so many directions an author can take, and therefore so many reasons why you yourself might decide to pick up your pen and write a memoir. Here are just a few:
- To recall and cement the memory of a certain time in your life;
- To leave behind an important story or lesson for your family;
- To document your travels or a once-in-a-lifetime trip;
- To open up about something painful or difficult; or simply,
- To tell a powerful story that will resonate with readers.
In the next article in our series about memoir, we offer up 21 examples of memoirs that might inspire you to write your own. After all, now that we've demystified the genre and made this fancy French word seem a little less scary, it might be time for you to write the story of your life — and learn how to do it well.