Diving into the thoughts and memories of another person, no matter who they are, is a unique and beautiful experience. Reading memoirs can bring up feelings of joy and sadness or even help us to reflect on our own lives. So, what would happen if you tried to write your own? You may feel as though there’s still plenty of life left in you before you could even consider writing a memoir, but we’re here to show you that your experiences so far are just as poignant and meaningful—whether you’re 25 or 95.
The Difference Between a Memoir and Memoirs
Before we jump into some examples of famous memoirs, let’s begin with a quick definition so that you can fully understand what this literary genre is all about.
What Is a Memoir?
Originating with the French mémoire and from the Latin memoria, the term “memoir” means memory or reminiscence. It’s a category of nonfiction writing that’s usually based on the writer’s personal reflections of a particular period in their life or a certain theme that has come up for them numerous times, sometimes across several years or decades.
The author of a memoir is referred to as a “memoirist” or “memorialist.” They construct their narrative using a first person point of view and often have an informal feel to them. The writer usually comes to some kind of resolution by the end of the memoir—a lesson learned throughout their journey or the movement from bad days to better ones and hope for the future.
In this respect, they can seem a little more novel-like than other categories of nonfiction writing. The reader can easily follow the story of the main protagonist (the writer) through a series of initial events that lead to a confrontation, before reaching the climax and, finally, the resolution.
What is a Memoir?
A collection of memories across different time spans and topics is referred to as “memoirs,” rather than the singular “memoir.” These can be grouped together as part of an anthology or essay collection to form memoirs on various themes that occur across the life of the writer.
Memoirs can be organized either chronologically or by topic, depending on what makes sense for the writer and the way they want the story to be told. Essay collections are a great way to compile memoirs and are often the go-to structure for modern memoirists. They depict numerous trials and challenges, sometimes with no clear redemption by the end, but they ultimately leave the reader with an important message or sense of comfort.
The Difference Between Memoirs and Autobiography
It’s easy to think that a collection of memoirs and an autobiography are the same. But while they have overlap and similarities, there are some notable differences that keep these genres apart.
Both memoir and autobiography are written from a first person perspective and depict the life of the writer. However, an autobiography typically spans the entire chronological life of the author, from birth or childhood until the present day. A memoir, on the other hand, is simply a snapshot in time or a collection of several of these memorable moments in one narrative.
We also need to think about the type of information these works tell us. Autobiographies require significantly more research and fact-checking than a memoir, as these are more about events or experiences that can be verified and validated through independent digging. But with memoirs, the writer is recollecting their experiences purely from memory and how they interpreted that moment in time.
Memoirs, at least in the modern understanding, are often much more personal. Historically, memoirs were more like autobiographies but still based around a singular event or experience and almost entirely written by well-known politicians or people in high society. These days, they’re less a chronicle of history and research and more a story of how an individual remembers their own life.
Build Your Memoir From Personal Essays
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Examples of Memoirs
Night by Elie Wiesel
Written in 1960, Night depicts the personal experiences of Elie Wiesel during his time in Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 and 1945. The book has been translated into more than 30 languages and remains one of the most widely read first-person narratives of the Holocaust to this day.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
The Yellow House was awarded the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, with Sarah M. Broom carefully crafting a narrative of over 100 years of family history. The book centers around her family home in New Orleans, its destruction during Hurricane Katrina, and her personal experiences around race, politics, class, trauma, and inequality in modern America.
Educated by Tara Westover
From overcoming her survivalist Mormon upbringing to completing a PhD in history at Cambridge University, Tara Westover’s memoir dives deep into the importance of education and exploring what you can do when you have a desire to learn. The book spent 132 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and has won numerous literary awards.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
In I Am Malala, activist Malala Yousafzai recalls her assassination attempt at the age of 15, the rise of the Taliban in her home country of Pakistan, and her quest for global female education. Although the book has won several awards, she continues to receive threats, and the book has been banned in many schools and bookstores throughout Pakistan.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler’s collection of essays is an excellent example of how to craft memoirs around topics or themes. The book reflects on her experiences as an up-and-coming comedian, her time on Saturday Night Live, and the creation of hit TV show Parks and Recreation. She also offers advice and real-world insight throughout each essay, ending each piece on an inspirational and hopeful note.
How to Write a Memoir
Now that you have a better idea of what exactly a memoir is, it’s time for you to write your own. There’s no right or wrong way to write a memoir, but these tips will help you to stay motivated and on track when you’re struggling or feeling a little lost.
Choose the Time Period or Theme for your Memoir
This seems like the most obvious place to start, but you’d be surprised at how many memoirists don’t realize what they actually want to write about until they’re deep into the process of writing a memoir. It’s fine to work on a rough draft and get all of your thoughts down on paper as you start to figure out the structure and outline for your memoir, but at some point, you need to decide what you want to include and what can be left out for another book or scrapped entirely.
Even if you’re writing a memoir at a fairly young age, you’ve already had countless different life experiences that have shaped who you are and what your life now looks like. It would be impossible to fit all of these into one book and, even if you could, that would likely lead to a messy and complicated story that makes it difficult for your reader to follow.
Narrowing your focus gives you space to explore your own thoughts and ideas in a deeper and well-rounded way, which is the point of a memoir compared to an autobiography. Think of your work as a tiny slice of your life pie, where you can pull out different experiences as examples to illustrate a certain struggle or challenge that you’ve faced. This will also help you to build in teachable moments for your readers, where you can offer advice and guidance if they’re going through a similar situation.
The best memoirs are those that are authentic and genuine—they’re a heartfelt and true account of how the author was thinking and feeling at the moment, as well as their reflections afterward. Staying honest while you write your story can be difficult, especially if you’re dealing with a sensitive subject matter or if there are other people involved. But even if this is the case, telling the truth should ultimately be the driving force behind your writing.
Although autobiography tends to lend itself more to fact than memoir, it’s a bad idea to embellish or exaggerate what really happened beyond what your own recollections are. Everything you write should be as accurate to how you remember it as possible, including your own feelings at the time.
Knowing how to separate past and present thoughts about an event or time period can be a challenge, so give yourself plenty of space to explore these thoughts or feelings before you begin to write your memoir. You may find that difficult emotions come to the surface, so treat yourself with kindness and empathy as you plan the book and unlock those memories.
Include Sensory Experiences
It may be easy for you to put down all of your thoughts and feelings and have it make sense for you, but what does that mean for your readers? Remember, memoirs aren’t journals, and the goal is to have people read with interest and share your book with others. Because your experiences aren’t necessarily the experiences of your reader, it can be difficult to keep them engaged in the narrative all the way through.
That’s where sensory experiences can help you. Load up your first draft with plenty of details that help put the reader in your shoes at that moment in time. Describe scenery or thoughts with intense detail and vivid language to help them picture what that place looked like through your eyes. It’ll never be exactly the same as how you experienced it, but you can give your readers enough to keep them interested and have their own thoughts or feelings about what you’re writing about.
Use Fiction Techniques for a Stronger Story
Just because you’re writing nonfiction doesn’t mean you can abandon everything you ever learned about writing! If you’re unsure about the type of format to follow, the traditional three act structure is a good place to start.
Set the scene from the beginning with yourself as the main character. Introduce the reader to other relevant characters at various points in the opening chapters and show how they fit into the narrative, without giving too much away upfront. Remember those sensory experiences? Be as detailed as you can about how certain people talk, look, and move to help your readers imagine them as they work through your book.
From there, you can start to build suspense and tension as you move toward the important parts of the story that you want your readers to know about or learn from. Then, as you wrap up with a reflection or some kind of lesson, your readers will be able to piece together everything they’ve learned throughout the story.
Show How You’ve Grown as a Person
By the end of your memoir, you should be able to discuss where you are now in relation to the topic or theme that you’ve been discussing. Most memoirs offer thoughts on the writer’s personal redemption, outlining how the experiences of the book have changed them and where they see themselves going from now on as a result of what they’ve discovered.
But not all memoirs have to have redemptive endings. Particularly when dealing with topics like race, politics, or religion, there may not be a “happy ending.” You can still talk about what you’ve learned throughout the process and how you hope to use those experiences moving forward.
Share Your Memoir With the World
No matter what experiences you’ve had, penning your personal story can be a cathartic and enjoyable process. By writing your memoir, you’ll be able to captivate readers and build connections that you never knew were possible.
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Writing the Truth: How to Start Writing Your Memoir