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.