Times Past: What is Memoir

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

August 10, 2018

By Irene Waters

I started off this series for Charli saying that I had already written about what memoir is and at the time I chose not to repeat it. However, in summing up for the last post in this series, I thought it is probably worth revisiting what a memoir is.

Firstly, memoir belongs in the creative nonfiction genre. These works are described as true stories that are well told. They generally utilise the fictional techniques of dialogue and high definition description of scenes. The truth is told in a way that is compelling for the reader.

Memoir is derived from the French term for memory. Memoirs also come from this word, but memoir and memoirs refer to two different things. The plural form is interchangeable with autobiography (the complete life story of a person in chronological order). Memoir, however, refers to a modern form of life writing that looks at only a part of one’s life and is told in the compelling way discussed in the previous chapter.

Although both autobiography and memoir are true, an autobiography tells facts that can be found by researching the life. The information should be verifiable. It is the history of a life. Memoir, on the other hand, is coming from within. It is the story of self and is how one person remembers a portion of their life. These memories are true to the author but are not necessarily verifiable by anyone else. When I write a memoir it is true to my memory but not perhaps to others. We all approach an event with a worldview that is our own, and the memory we will take from that event will be influenced by it, thus giving us different perceptions of the same event. This does not mean that anything can be made up. There have been a number of fraudulent memoirs written such as famously by James Frey and Norma Khouri. In these, the incidents in the book did not occur or were grossly exaggerated.

There has been an explosion of memoirs since Mary Karr and Frank McCourt each wrote their memoir, both of which are credited with being the start of the modern memoir boom. These paved the way for anybody to write their own story – we have misery, travel, dogs, celebrity, grief, illness memoirs and the list goes on and on and on. Memoir is often similarly seen in the nonfiction world to the way romance is seen in the fiction world. Why is this? Most likely because everyone has a story to tell and many who aren’t diligent in editing and writing publish. Sometimes people see it as narcissistic – to my mind, this is usually an unfair assumption. Those writing feel they have a story that may help others by the knowledge that they gleaned in their processing of what happened to them. This reflection is an integral part of memoir. Others write because they feel they have a good story to tell but again there will be a change in the person because of the event, and this reflection will be shown in the narrative. For those that want revenge or a cure for self, publishing a memoir is not the way to go.

How do you tell if it is fiction or memoir? The name of the author should be the same as the ‘I’ character in the narrative. Phillipe LeJeune coined the term “The Autobiographical Pact” whereby the author is the ‘I’ character and pledges to the reader that the narrative is a true story. The reader reciprocates by agreeing to believe the narrative is the truth. Reading memoir is different from reading fiction, and that abuse of trust hurts if the memoir writer does not tell the truth.

As for writing memoir – know your audience, know your theme and keep the focus narrow. Use dialogue and high definition descriptions of the scene, use small detail that only someone that was there could have known. Use your voice. Personally, I think there should be a combination of telling and showing so that the reader is left in no doubt as to how you changed as a result of the events being told. Always show unsavoury characters – let the reader be the one to decide that they are not too nice – don’t label or condemn. As a result, time may have to pass before writing. Time should be played within the narrative.

Before sending it out for publication – make sure that it has been copyedited and proofread. I hope in the writing you enjoy owning your story. Thanks Charli for giving me the opportunity over the last few months to talk memoir. There have been some good discussions, and although I have never wished to change anyone’s thoughts on memoir, I hope that it has given everyone some food for thought.

Times Past will continue monthly. Join in Times Past where this month we are looking at Horses and Childhood Dreams.

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  1. Annecdotist

    Great summing up of the series, Irene. A grand finale indeed!
    Just wondered what you think of the trend towards ‘autofiction’ in fiction. Seems to be continually blurring the boundary between memoir and fiction.

    • Charli Mills

      Autofiction, interesting. I hadn’t realized this has been around since the 1970s. Is there a resurgence or new twist to it? It seems a rather obscure literary form but an interesting one to explore. Maybe a prompt.

      • Annecdotist

        Didn’t realise it had been a thing for so long either, but I’ve come across it a lot lately.

      • Charli Mills

        Sounds like something has revitalized the form. Any particular stories or books, perhaps anything you’ve reviewed?

    • D. Avery @shiftnshake

      Spurred no doubt by the interest in alternative facts and fake news; in this brave new world anything goes.

      • Annecdotist

        Another good reason to avoid it!

      • Charli Mills

        Ha! I hadn’t thought of the genre resurfacing for that reason, but yes, I can see we have the perfect climate for alternative biographies.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks Anne. In times past it was quite common for an author to write a memoir but to publish it as fiction. Many of Hemingways books were just this. His last book was published posthumously as a fictional memoir. I think the saying that everyone has a book in them comes from the fact that most of the old writers started off writing what they new best, themselves, but published it as fiction. These days it seems to be the other way round – authors get a name for themselves then write a memoir. The difference I guess was that memoir wasn’t a genre available in the past for them to use. ‘Autofiction’ is probably a purist that doesn’t want to follow life exactly as it happened and wants to use exaggeration of the facts or put in a different ending. I’m not sure. It could just be a term used for any fiction that is written in the first person past tense such as Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was so autobiographical in nature that a friend of mine was convinced that it was about the author’s own life. The difference was that the author’s name and the main character had different names which is one of the distinguishing factors. In other words Anne, I think that it has always been around but I am not 100% certain of what form it takes as I haven’t read anything that I have noticed is termed in this way. Hybrid books often blurr the boundaries – sometimes to good effect, others I’m not so sure.

      • Sherri Matthews

        I read Anne’s comment and your answer, Irene, with great interest, as I haven’t heard of ‘Autofiction’. Now I know! Thanks for explaining the thinking behind it, it would seem to be something that’s been around for a while with a newly coined phrase. While on the subject,I’ve noticed here in the UK recently that memoir is also called ‘Life Writing’. Wondered if you’ve come across it too, in Australia?

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Life writing is here as well but it encompasses any form of life writing so includes autobiography, diary, trauma recovery writing etc. Memoir also fits into it.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Ahh…got it, thanks so much for explaining the difference Irene 🙂

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        You’re welcome Sherri. There is so much terminology it becomes confusing very easily.

      • Charli Mills

        Now that you mention Hemingway, I can better see the path. Memoir has likely been with us but in different forms. I suppose that cultural acceptances and other influences have altered, or clarified, its course as a genre. Chaucer often employed “dreams” that scholars attribute to real events but for political reasons, the poet distanced his involvement with the disclaimer that he merely dreamed it (not lived it). Hybrid books are of interest to me. I like the idea of writing memoir and then going off into imagination.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        A really good example of a hybrid is a book called Bite Your Tongue by Francesca Rendell-Short. Political situations make a lot of books an interpreters dream/nightmare. Much of the old testament was code because of the political situation of the time so I can well believe it would have been the same for Chaucer. It just shows that no genre or writing had completely clear lines. And perhaps that is good as it gives author’s freedom to push the boundaries.

      • Charli Mills

        Thanks for the suggested book! Wouldn’t it be amazing to break some of these old codes? That was my honors thesis work with Chaucer, following a thread of secrecy in one of his books (Troilus and Criseyde).

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        That would have been fascinating although I would have found the old English so difficult to read. We did some of The Canterbury Tales at school and I found it hard.

      • Charli Mills

        It’s Middle English, and the trick is to learn the vowel pronunciations and learn to recognize some of the weird letter shift. I found it easier to learn than French or Spanish, lol! Canterbury Tales was actually unfinished. Chaucer wrote many great works that get overshadowed by his one incomplete manuscript.

  2. Ritu

    I’ve loved reading various Times Past posts ! Thank you for giving such a deep understanding of them. ????

    • Charli Mills

      I’ve enjoyed having Irene’s posts and look forward to the series next year. Getting ready for another Rodeo!

      • Ritu

        Is it nearly that time already??!!

      • Charli Mills

        I know! It’s true! Rodeo is coming in October and there’s going to be a TUFF competition leading up to it. Breaking news within the next two weeks.

      • Ritu


  3. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    You have definitely provided food for thought, good, fulfilling food. I have appreciated very much your defining and clarifying this genre.
    24 Carrot gold writing, Irene.

    • Charli Mills

      Definitely 24 carrot gold stuff!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Wow that is praise indeed D. Thank you and I’m glad they provided some sustenance to your thought processes.

  4. Charli Mills

    Irene, I’ve enjoyed all the discussions you’ve sparked and hope we can do some more next year after the next Rodeo. “What is memoir” send to be an ongoing exploration.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks Charli for inviting me. I have enjoyed the series and the discussions that have come from them. I have had to think and question myself and why I believe certain things from the discussion we’ve had and it has been most enjoyable.

  5. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    I’ve enjoyed this series, Irene, learning a great deal about memoir.

    • Charli Mills

      I have had my understanding expanded thanks to Irene’s teaching and guidance on the topic!

  6. dharkanein

    The post is really thought provoking and it did clear some of my doubts regarding the genre. Thanks for it.

    • Charli Mills

      There’s so much Irene has clarified for me regarding the genre!

      • dharkanein

        And I learned new facts about the same, from the post.

      • Charli Mills

        I’m finding the genre of hybrids interesting — combining fiction with memory.

  7. Norah

    Thanks for explaining the distinction between autobiography and memoir, Irene. I have read quite a few memoirs, including the two you mention, and very much enjoy them.

    • Charli Mills

      When I first read Angela’s Ashes it was in a “creative non-fiction” class.

      • Norah

        Interesting. 🙂

  8. Sherri Matthews

    Thank you, Irene, for your wonderful memoir series, and for taking the time to answer my questions. I have so much enjoyed our discussions generated by your excellent posts, and have learnt a great deal to take away as I work on my rewrites. I very much look forward to any future memoir posts from you. And I wish you every success in all your endeavours 🙂 <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for all you’ve added to the discussions, too Sherri!

      • Sherri Matthews

        Thanks, Charli 🙂 <3

  9. Molly Stevens - Shallow Reflections

    Thanks for clarifying the subtle differences between memoir and autobiography, Irene, and introducing me to the term ‘autofiction’ through the comments. Excellent series. Reading these has been like a mini-course in memoir.

  10. janmalique

    This has been really interesting and nice to know the difference between memoir and autobiography.

    • Charli Mills

      Irene makes the difference clear. I enjoy how much she knows and shares about her genre.

      • janmalique

        She certainly is knowledgeable and a joy shines through as a result.

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