“I’m not famous. I’m not writing a memoir!” I hear it all the time. Most often it is from women raised in the self-effacing era where we were told not to think too highly about ourselves. However, once I define memoir for them, they are completely on board. So, what is a memoir and how is it different than an autobiography and what on earth is narrative non-fiction?
Memoir is a slice of your life. It can be about the time you traveled to Italy, India, and Indonesia and what you learned about yourself. It can be about crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat as newlyweds and what you learned about marriage. It does not have to be about some horrible experience that you had to overcome. Let me say that again: you don’t need to be a trauma survivor to write a memoir. And a memoir doesn’t have to start from the day you were born and run to the present day.
In contrast, an autobiography is about a person’s entire life and tends to be reserved for the famous person or the person who had an impact on humanity as a whole.
Narrative non-fiction is just a big fancy word that describes both as well as blog posts and personal essays that use story to describe a real event.
What makes a good Memoir?
The theme, the story arc, and the emotional ride and suspense. A good memoir reads like a novel that transports us to a different time and place. It contains all the markings of a novel in that it has a main character that develops and changes. It is not just a listing of things that happened, it is an internal exploration as well. The reader sees the themes play out and can often relate the story to their own lives.
What about telling the truth?
Important truths should not be altered. For example, if you did not graduate with a law degree from Harvard, don’t claim that you did. There are some facts, like the curtains being mint green or sunshine yellow, that don’t need to be fussed about. Can you imagine if Frank McCourt refused to write Angela’s Ashes because he couldn’t remember the exact shade of his mother’s dress? No one can be held 100% accountable to remember word-for-word what was said in a conversation fifteen years ago. However, the feelings we had during the conversation stay with us and those are what we need to bring to life again in the memoir as we take the reader along the journey of experiencing those events through our perception.
Everyone has a story to share, whether it is a childhood experience or an unforgettable situation as an adult. And while not everyone is meant to be a memoirist, if you find yourself verbally sharing your story and know it will resonate with readers then it deserves (and needs) to be told.