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The Work of Memoir

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By Irene Waters

As you read this I will be sitting on the high seas, nearing the equator, out of range of the internet so I will start by apologising for what will seem my tardy response to any comments. Don’t worry I will get there and look forward to coming back to a conversation in full swing.

Initially, I was planning for this post to discuss what memoir is but decided that I have already written a post on the difference between memoir and fiction so instead I will direct you to that and write instead on the work of Memoir.

Have you ever thought about why you read memoir? Have you ever noticed that you read memoir differently to the way you read fiction? I know I do. I am supercritical with memoir if I find what is written to be unbelievable. If I discover after I have read a memoir that it is not true – I feel angry, duped, used. I never feel that way about reading a fictional work. We feel this way because we read believing the story to be true.

For the reader, a memoir can be a guide through the human experience. It may be an experience that the reader themselves is undergoing and they are looking for an insight into another person’s experience on which they can draw strength for what they are undergoing or give us an understanding of a different kind of life. We can learn from another’s true life experience as we know these real-life characters lived, and we can get guidelines from them as to how we can live our own lives. For the inarticulate, a memoir may offer expression of what they are feeling but which they find impossible to express. It lets the reader know they are not alone with what they are experiencing. Predominantly in reading memoir, we are looking for how the narrated “I” deals with situations to become the “I” of now. We are looking at identity creation. We are honing in on the reflection of memoir.

This brings us to what I find fascinating with memoir – all those different “I” characters. Have you ever thought about how the author – the narrating “I” is telling his/her story and yet is a different person to the person they are narrating – the “I” then or narrated “I” who is a constructed “I”. There is also a past or historical “I” who is the person who can be verified as having lived but this “I” cannot be reproduced exactly as they were in the past.  Finally, there is an ideological “I” who knows the cultural rules of the time. Identity is embodied in all these “I”s that we meet with memoir. P. Eakin said: “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”

If you are writing memoir are you aware of your “I” characters? I believe this is why people read memoir and why memoir is written. It is the biggest difference between fiction and memoir – the narrating ‘I’ as the present day person who does the remembering and offers reflections and interpretations of the past events allows us to see how the author’s “I” character has changed. If the memoir is a ‘coming of age’ story we will read how one ‘I’ changes to another. In a conversion narrative the ‘I’s will be separated by a chasm. It is not unusual for there to be circumstances where the “I”s don’t like each other or understand each other. This is one circumstance where third person can be used in the writing of a memoir (past tense first person is normal) as it shows the disconnect between the ‘I”s.

The modern way of writing memoir using fictional techniques I believe (and remember this is my opinion) detracts from the reason people read memoir. If you use all show, not tell you are allowing the reader to construct their own thoughts on how you got there, how your identity changed and they lose that important part of memoir – the reflection by the narrating ‘I’. This loss leads to the loss to the reader of the author’s gaining of self- awareness and the impact this has on their identity creation. This is one of the fictional techniques that I am loathe to encourage to the exclusion of telling. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Next month I will look at dialogue in memoir.

Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month thanks to a suggestion from Charli, we are going to stay at school and examine learning to write. Write a post of your own and link up to my Times Past Page, leave a comment in my comment section or in the comment section when Charli posts her memories of learning to write. Don’t forget to put where you lived at the time of the memoir, your generation and whether it was a rural or city area. Look forward to reading them on my return.


  1. Ritu says:

    Fascinating post Irene! Memoir is not my writing genre, but so much to think of!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Old Jules says:

    Interesting perspective. As a [mostly] fiction writer who has written books in first person and third person omniscient my personal view is that each has strengths, each weaknesses presenting a challenge to the writer and demanding changes in technique for handling every aspect of the work. But I believe a writer who can’t write fiction in first person that is believable enough to convince the reader [if only for the duration of the work] that the character is real and the work at least somewhat autobiographical, should use third person.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      That’s interesting about point of view and the believability of characters. I find that I get to close to my characters and third person helps me keep boundaries.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Old Jules says:

        I can’t argue with that except to say I’ve never found a way to keep from getting too close to my characters, first person, third person…. And eventually to keep them from running away with the plot I began religious adherence to a plot outline for the first draft on every long work. It doesn’t keep me from becoming too attached to my characters, but it forces them to stay inside the boundaries insofar as the plot is concerned. But that attachment to the characters is one of the agonies that causes me to swear every time I finish a long work of fiction that I’ll never do it again.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        I understand that attachment, Jules. Often characters can mess up my plans, and other times they help me fix it. I like flash fiction for letting characters come out and play without adherence to an outline, plot or outcome.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Another fun topic, Irene. I hope you have a great time on the “high seas”.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on ShiftnShake and commented:
    Alphabetical Order, D. Avery

    I would have to go to school.
    Because, while I knew some things, I did not know all things, and there they would teach me things.
    I would learn to read and write.
    Ok, so I went to kindergarten. No regrets. I met some good friends there. And I learned. I learned how easy it is to get in trouble with your good friends in kindergarten. And I learned to recite the alphabet. I learned it and then we just did it. Recite, recite, recite. Reading, I found out, was to wait until first grade. (The secret was, it was too late; I had accidentally figured reading out at home while looking at comic books. Shhh.) But by day it was that crazy disconnected string of letters that weren’t even categorized by their roles; their sounds and roles were still guarded secrets. We just learned to identify them by sight and their names. And that was fair, because not all my friends could read when they got home but at school we were all equal when it came to reciting the alphabet, though in fact Freddie could sing it more beautifully and faster than any of us. In another year, in first grade, it was less fair; he was still singing that song while the rest of us were all out of tune, scattering those letters and putting them into choppy combinations of sounds.
    But what about writing? Well that was where we recited on paper, drawing the letters, making them ourselves. We had to do this silently; Miss Koring liked silence a lot. Freddie kept singing the alphabet, he got in trouble for that.
    I figured out how to do this alphabet writing, and I did it just like Miss Koring showed us, one letter after another in that same order we sang them in. It was fun at first, mastering this skill, copying those letters onto the lined paper. We kept doing it. In the same order. In the same way. I started to get into trouble.
    Ms. Koring did not like it when Bs had wings and antennae drawn on them. I made it through the Cs, and even capital D. But lower case Ds looked like the musical notes that Miss Thorpe taught us, Miss Thorpe who let me do the chickadee-dee-dee part of the music lesson because of my name. Miss Koring did not like it when my lower case Ds danced up and down the lined spaces like musical notes, like flitting chickadees. EEEEeeee. Flying flags flapping on the Fs got me in trouble again. GGGGgggg HHHHhhhh III (am being so good) iii JJJJ jjjj . Miss Koring came back by. Kicking Ks caused conflict. LLLLLlllll. Looking though the window I could see majestic mountains mounded with snow, but I got in trouble for my rendition of the letter M. I’ll be good. NOPQRS, S started the sound of my surname, but I slunk sorrowfully when scolded for my slithering script. I should have known not to string taut telephone wires between my Ts, and to have just done them as I had been taught. Too late. UVW, whoa, here we go again, Ws, waves of Ws washing wildly across the lined paper. In trouble again; I couldn’t win. XYZ, Z end of the day, another day of school. I hadn’t learned much.
    I would have to come back.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. […] following is in response to Irene Water’s Times Past challenge. Read the rest of her post at Carrot Ranch for more discussion on memoir […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Norah says:

    Great post, Irene. Like you, I would feel cheated if I found the incidents in a memoir to be fiction rather than fact – why not just write a novel then. But all participants in a situation experience it differently. I think other members of my family may see situations we shared rather differently from the way I do. But who’s to say which of us is right and which is wrong? Our perceptions are true for each of us, however different they be.
    I also agree with you about telling more than showing. There’s not much point in writing a memoir if we have to fill in the gaps. It would be like talking to someone with dementia. LOL!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      I’ll be interested to hear Irene’s response to perspective when she returns from her cruise. I think we each have a right to express our truth as we experienced it. Many who are in denial, refuse to process and ignore details thus “remember” it differently. Often groups will collaborate in their denial because it’s more comfortable than facing hard truths. It makes it hard for the one who is willing to look at the higher dynamic and express what they experienced no matter how uncomfortable. I think when it comes to writing it in memoir, there’s a distinct difference between making up the gaps and taking the time to acknowledge that this is how you remember the experience, including the pieces where you might have gaps.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Norah says:

        Mmm. Your perspective is interesting too, Charli, as will Irene’s be. I like that you say, “we each have a right to express our truth as we experienced it.” I’m going to ponder that a little more.
        I agree that it’s important to leave gaps where gaps exist. They may be there for a reason.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’m looking forward to Irene’s response on perspective too Charli. No matter what those in denial might believe or think or say, a memoirist has to tell the true story and stand by it. It is her/his story, nobody elses. The gaps are what they are, and can’t be embellished or made up. I would love to know what Irene thinks of telling the reader at such points, something along the line of ‘I don’t remember if mother was there that day, but I do remember rushing upstairs to my empty bedroom’ as an example. That’s what I’ve done in my memoir because I’m telling it as it ticker tapes through my head, moment by moment. It’s surprised me that only a few parts are hazy…I wish my memory in the present was half as good 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        I think that line you just shared adds to the authenticity of something that I’m reading. It shows the gaps as a part of the story. Thank you for broadening our discussion, Sherri!


    • Hi Norah, I agree, we all have our own perspective on what did or didn’t happen. I’ve come to terms with that in writing my memoir by coming back to the old addage of ‘owning it’. It’s my story, this is what happened to me and how it affected me and my decisions and actions and my reactions at the time. Writing from the ‘I’ I am now about the ‘I’ I was then. And yes, no point at all if it isn’t 100% true. Memoir is memoir is memoir, otherwise read a novel 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s so powerful — to own our story. And I love your apt differentiation between memoir and fiction!


      • Norah says:

        Thanks for sharing your perspective too, Sherri. I agree that it’s necessary to stay true to the “I” we were then, and the “I” we became as a result. “Owing it” and all it’s effects can take a bit of reckoning at times.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. So much enjoy your memoir posts Irene. I always learn something 🙂 I would love to talk with you more about ‘fictional memoir’. I am like you, I feel cheated if a memoir turns out to be not true, or embellished. Half truth may as well be no truth at all. As you say, how can we come away with the benefit of having experienced the world through the eyes of the narrator, shared in their journey and taken something meaningful away from it? I found at times, in my first draft, that I tended to embellish certain scenes in the description, getting carried away. I had to cut them all,because I realised they were written as if I was writing fiction. It was only here and there, but enough to make me realise that keeping on the path of complete truth as I remembered it is easier said than done. But once I did, it helped me stop veering off on a tangent! Looking forward to your return, hope you’re having a ‘whale’ of a time on those high seas Irene! Don’t forget to share all your pics when you get back! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charli Mills says:

      Of course, I’m not the one who knows much about memoir but I believe the moment you put the word “fiction” before it the writing is something. That something else is what I write — creative non-fiction. It’s not full-on fiction but it uses the creative elements of fiction to embellish an experience. I fictionalize the life of a blue heron; I take someone else’s photo and write about it as if I were there and then say this is a response to a photo I was given. I don’t consider that memoir. I get to the memory and take a left turn into imagination. That is not memoir. But where is the line drawn? I can say the moment I go to imagination, it’s a creative work now a memoir piece. But what do the memoirists say?

      And I can’t wait to see Irene’s photos, too!


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