WHAT IS A MEMOIR? I think of memoir as three-legged stool, designed specifically to hold up your story. In other words, it has requirements – four, to be precise: your story and three others – and learning them will allow you to write this wondrous form.
What is Memoir?
As a memoir coach and teacher, I get asked three questions more than any others. Starting off, everyone is confused about the difference between memoir and autobiography. I always address that immediately, and will do so below. Question number two will not surprise you a bit: When is a book or piece finished? The third most popular question I get varies a little in its phrasing, but is always about telling the truth and how hard it is when considering the others – usually family – involved. Together these three questions are really getting to the heart of this genre, asking, what is memoir? So let me see if I can answer that for you here.
Most people think that memoir is a story about me – or in this case, you. Most people are wrong. Memoir is about something and you are the illustration, and to move yourself off of center stage, let’s use that stool – or tripod, if you prefer – the main qualification being that the thing has to have three legs.
What is the three-legged stool of memoir?
- The answer to the question, “What is this about?’
- Your argument
- The scenes from your life that will be deployed to prove that argument
I give talks on this all the time, and it’s the only talk I’ve ever given that someone ever walked out of in protest. Granted, it happened only once, but it was a memorable day at a venerable writing institution and the person who walked out did so saying, “You’re wrong. My memoir is my life story and no one needs an argument to write one.”
She’s right. You don’t need an argument to write memoir. Just like Dorothy in Oz, you have on you at all times everything you need to get where you want to go. In this case, where you want to go is not home to Kansas, but rather, to write memoir. You have your stories. Those are the goods, absolutely. And you can write and write and, um, write, and write and write and write and never finish. Or never be read.
Without an argument, or knowing what the story is about, how will you ever know when you’re done? Will your story have that universal pull you recognize when you read and enjoy the stories of others? How will it ever get published and marketed unless it is about something other people can identify? And yes, I mean something other than you. To understand what is memoir and how to write it, you first must know what memoir is not.
What is the Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography?
This makes a really good place to discuss the difference between memoir and autobiography. Because right about now you are breathing hard from that solar plexus punch I just delivered when I wrote that memoir is not about you. Sorry. Kind of.
When discussing the difference between memoir and autobiography, I keep this definition pretty simple and define autobiography as a book-length piece about one’s whole life, and memoir as written from one aspect of that life. After all, if you are very famous, we know where you ended up and, as a result, we want to know about the little stuff – how growing up in the Bronx shaped your character to the extent that you became the first female Hispanic Justice of America’s Supreme Court, as did Sonia Sotomayor. In that case, we are willing to run the laps of your life with you, learning about life at Princeton and the scholarship that brought you there, perhaps even right down to what you ate for breakfast the morning of your first day on the court. That’s autobiography.
For the rest of us, there is memoir, where we get to explore one aspect of life at a time whether the piece be an essay, an op-ed or a book-length memoir. I refer to this as your areas of expertise. Learning to write from one of these areas of expertise at a time will change your life. For more on that, see a recent post on how to become a writer.
How long does a memoir have to be?
Memoir comes in various lengths, short to long. This is because memoir is a genre, not one long book that begins with your great-great-great grandfather and ends with what you had for lunch yesterday. As a genre, it is a category of writing and publishing and, like every other category, it comes in many lengths, though for all of them this is the answer to length: A memoir is done when you have proved your argument.
Short to long, first there is the miniature. The genius of this form? Hands down, it’s Abigail Thomas, whose books, What Comes Next and How to Like it and Safekeeping, I am studying like the Rosetta Stones that they are to master this form. So many of my students want to write short-short-short, and despite referring them to the brilliant work of Lydia Davis to see the master of that form in fiction, I always shied away from encouraging this form in memoir. Abigail, thank you. I am changed, though now I must study hard to be able to lead my memoir writing students in the best direction as to how you did this so well.
Thomas’s work, page by page, can sometimes be only a few lines long, though each word has a poet’s care and a sculptor’s courage as she whacks the rest of the story away leaving us the kernel and nothing more. Several times my family has actually come to check on me to see if I was alright after reading a passage by Abigail Thomas, so much gasping was going on from behind the book.
When learning to define what is memoir, you must try writing small, but read Abigail Thomas first. I will soon add her to my Suggested Reading List, those books from which I have learned something.
What Are The Other Lengths of Memoir?
Purely in terms of length, next come personal essays, ranging from perhaps 650 words to anywhere up to a few thousand. There are several best of lists around, though I particularly like Buzzfeed’s 17 Personal Essays That Will Change Your Life.
Note the word “personal” here which suggests these are all memoir, since the essay is a form and not all are memoir.
Of course, everyone pines and swoons over The New York Times Modern Love column, as they should. It rocks, and it’s about 1700 words.
After that, only in terms of length, is the longer personal essay. The best of these is exemplified in The New Yorker’s Personal History column, a place I tout all the time as the finest magazine memoir there is.
You can go longer and still not be a book, and still be published, of course, though these days those longer pieces are found mostly online. If you have a favorite of these, leave the link in a comment below. I’d be deeply grateful.
Though here is the thing about length: the burning of Atlanta can be told in 200 words. It’s not that your story cannot go short. It can. So never use the fact that you do not know how to write short as the only read to write long. Learn to write short, too. It’s a skill.
Of course, memoir comes in book length. Again, the deciding factor for me, always, is the argument and what length I think I need to prove it.
The Sub-Genres of Memoir
What is memoir? It comes in categories, or sub-genres, and it helps to know where yours might be classified.
Recently, during one of my online classes, someone presented what I call a piece of advocacy journalism, and when I pointed this out to the writer and to the class, they all seemed surprised at the term. Her tale was of doing good, literally good work benefitting others. And she was writing about it. She did something, during which she took notes and now wants to write a book. Advocacy journalism.
So what might be the upshot from writing that tale? Well, you might want to do that too, after reading how performing such an act changed her for the better. Or you might want to contribute money or time or a new refrigerator to the cause. In other words, she is acting as an advocate for the cause by raising awareness. And while the definition I apply may differ from one used by The New York Times, it makes its point: that there are types of memoir, and to write in this genre it is best to identify which subgenre you are writing in.
There are grief memoir, recovery memoirs, travel, gardening, dog memoir (or dogoir as it has come to be know, though no know equivalent is applied for felines). There is marriage memoir, parenting and cooking memoir, and the list goes on to include medical drama memoir, surgeon stories, politics and more. You have merely to go a large bookstore to see the sub-categories and how they are listed.
Does Memoir Need a Structure?
Remember that stool? Those three elements – knowing with it is about, what you are arguing and what topics from your life you will use to prove that argument – are always there, no matter what the length of memoir you are writing.
I would argue, too, that every piece has a structure, from the shortest to the longest piece of memoir we write — the book — and that structure is always based on your argument, whether your argument be something simple like life is better if you garden, to something more complex that illuminates us on how grief is a process that must be passed through slowly or else you are destined to stay in it forever. How do you prove that argument? Using scenes from your life to show us the way through your tale, all the while percolating up that argument so we feel its force.
And what is the most powerful structure within that argument — the steel girders, if you will, of your scaffolding? Your three acts.
Why Memoir is Best Told in Three Acts
Why I use three acts has to do with the nature of memoir itself, and my belief in its need to come from one area of your expertise. Simply put, written from one area of expertise, every piece of memoir breaks down into three acts. In a grief memoir, those three acts would look something like this:
- You experienced grief
- You learned something about it
- You grew
In that, the three act (with a little bit of prologue, perhaps) structure works very well.
And while I will not get into a whole lot more here – if you love story structure, come see me in one of my live, online memoir classes and we can both talk about it until we clear the room – I will say that the three-act structure of beginning, middle and end that Aristotle made so famous that it lives with us today, still works and thrives in memoir.
Why? Because it’s satisfying, and you could do a lot worse in this life than write a satisfying book.
How True Does Your Memoir Have to Be?
From this moment forward, you get to practice the following sentence in the mirror: “You’re right,” (fill in the name of your sister/brother/cousin, annoying sister-in-law), “That’s not the way it happened to you. That’s the way it happened to me.”
In other words, memoir is deeply subjective. But here is the good news: I only care about your take, your point of view. In fact, I am reading it, listening to your essay on the radio, reading your blog specifically because I want your take, your voice, your point of view. That is your brand.
This is not to say you should lie, make things up or futz around with the truth. I expect your truth, knowing full well – because I, too, have a sister/brother/cousin/annoying sister-in-law — that there is another take to every single incident of life. In fact, my sister says that my second grade best friend is imaginary. Seriously. Ridiculous. I think. I mean, to me, he was terribly and wonderfully real when we rode the bus together holding hands while he smoked cigars.
So check your facts.
So, What is Memoir?
It’s a powerful genre that witnesses the times in which we live.
Want to know more? Of course you do. I’ve assembled twenty of the best and well-published memoir writers currently in the business here who wrote for you the Twenty Top Tips for Writing Memoir. Included in the list are the great Katrina Kenison on how to tell the truth when writing memoir, as well as Beth Kephart, also on telling the truth when writing memoir, and many other well-published authors on topics ranging from how to begin a memoir, how to write about your family and, of course, how to execute the perfect rewrite.
Read those. Read more. And if you need more, come see me in a live, online memoir class. I have a range of them now, from a 90-minute gateway course, to a six-month Master Class, after which you will have a first draft of your book-length memoir. Let me help you transform your work. That’s what I do. Writing, that’s what you do. Let’s do it together.