What is a Memoir? (And Why I Wrote One)

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a memoir (not something I do with great regularity–it’s usually my wife who does the telling), I often get the question, “What is a Memoir?” I usually begin my response by saying that it’s an autobiography that isn’t an autobiography, but that only confuses them more. So let’s unpack this properly.

A memoir is a person’s written, first person account of their own life, or, more typically, a portion of their life. A memoir’s focus is usually narrow. Maybe it’s a coming-of-age story that focuses on the author’s youth like The Glass Castle or Growing Up Amish. Maybe it’s an account of the Mormon dating scene in New York or the author’s experiences working undercover for the ATF. Or, as in my case, it’s about dealing with the dual tragedies of death and growing up. Memoir usually picks a theme or an certain perspective and sticks to it. It’s not trying to tell the whole story of a life, only one of its more interesting stories.

To really understand what a memoir is, you’ve got look at that root word, “memory.” A memoir doesn’t report the facts. That’s not to say that a memoir is full of lies, but a memoir is not about what happened so much as how it happened. To the author.

A memoir’s only priority is to share the author’s perspective. Nothing else matters. No research required. Only digging deep and pulling out out thoughts and feelings from the deep recesses of the brain.

And because of that… a memoir may not be all true. Think about it: are your memories factually accurate? Of course not. Chances are, your mother and father and brothers and sisters have different takes on some of the great stories of your life. For a memoirist, it is no different. The only thing a memoir can report on accurately is the memory of the author. What actually happened is known only to God and video cameras.

This is why you’ll sometimes hear memoir described as a cross between fiction and non fiction. In fact, even though memoir is filed under non fiction, it’s pretty much sold and written as fiction. Why? Because, like a novel, a good memoir will have a strong and propulsive narrative with an emphasis on character and plot. An autobiography can get away with presenting a life as a series of events and facts and figures. A memoir has to tell a story.

Of course, there are pitfalls to this. The temptation to exaggerate or even fabricate is great for the memoirist. That’s how you get guys like James Frey who fooled a great many people (including Oprah) with his is-it-true-or-is-it-not memoir, A Million Little Pieces. There’s remembering things a certain way and then there’s saying you served 87 days in jail when you did not.

Having now written a memoir myself, I get why this happens. A memoirist has two equally important priorities: tell the truth and tell a good story. They can occasionally butt heads. Only a very skilled and principled writer can navigate the battle successfully.

So why go there? Why write a memoir? Is it vanity? Lack of imagination?

For me, no. I don’t lack for imagination. I actually find fiction to be quite a bit easier than memoir. I wrote my book for two simple reasons: I knew it was a good story and I was compelled to tell it. Before I even knew if I was capable of writing a book, I knew this was something I had to do. And when you get promptings like that, I think you have to follow them. It usually means there’s somebody out there you can reach or help. I see the writing of my story as a sacred responsibility. One I could not ignore.

I imagine many memoirists probably feel the same way.