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Memoir, Anyone?

Main Entry: mem·oir

Pronunciation: \ˈmem-ˌwär, -ˌwȯr\

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle French memoire, from memoire memory, from Latin memoria

Date: 1571

1 : an official note or report : memorandum
2 a : a narrative composed from personal experience b : autobiography —usually used in plural c : biography
3 a : an account of something noteworthy : report b plural : the record of the proceedings of a learned society

— mem·oir·ist \-ist\ noun

  • an account of the author’s personal experiences
  • an essay on a scientific or scholarly topic


  • It focuses and reflects on the relationship between the writer and a particular
  • person, place, animal, or object.
  • It explains the significance of the relationship.
  • It leaves the reader with one impression of the subject of the memoir.
  • It is limited to a particular phase, time period, place, or recurring behavior in
  • order to develop the focus fully.
  • It makes the subject of the memoir come alive.
  • It maintains a first-person point of view.

According to J. A. Cuddon, “An autobiography may be largely fictional. Few can recall clear details of their early life and are therefore dependent on other people’s impressions, of necessity equally unreliable. Morever, everyone tends to remember what he wants to remember. Disagreeable facts are sometimes glossed over or repressed ….” Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 1991. The English novelist Anthony Powell said, “Memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.”


To write memoir, the writer should be able to:

  • narrow topic and focus.
  • identify audience and purpose.
  • use an individual voice.
  • develop characters through thoughts, characters, words.
  • use dialogue effectively.
  • use sensory details.
  • choose language appropriate to audience and purpose.
  • write a lead which engages the reader and sets the context for reading.
  • create a single impression of the subject of the memoir.
  • place ideas and details of the memoir in meaningful order.
  • focus on the purpose of relating the significance of the relationship between the writer and the subject of the memoir.

To write a memoir, begin by brainstorming on paper all the events you can remember from your life that were either very important to you in a positive way, or very important to you in a negative way. Talk to other members of your family to get ideas, help you remember events from when you were small, and to help fill in the details that might have been forgotten. Select the event, or series of related events, that seems most interesting to you right now. Brainstorm again but in more detail, trying to recall names, places, descriptions, voices, conversations, things, and all the other details that will make this turn into an interesting memoir. Work at this notetaking stage for a few days, until you feel you’ve got it all down on paper. Then begin to write. You will be surprised to see that even more details begin to appear once you start to write. For your first draft, write quickly to get all your ideas down from beginning to end. Don’t worry about editing. Before you revise, share your first draft with someone in the family. Consider their response but go with what feels right. Rewrite, and then start editing as needed. Good memoirs are about everyday things, but they are interesting, sometimes just as interesting to read as a good novel. Remember, a memoir is supposed to be true, so be careful not to exaggerate or embellish the truth.

Memoir is a form of autobiographical writing dealing usually with the recollections of one who has been a part of or has witnessed significant events, a slice of the author’s life, one centered on specific events. The memoir has the same characteristics of a fictional story: memorable characters, conflict or an obstacle to overcome, and movement of the protagonist to overcome the obstacle. Memoir is differentiated from autobiography which is a recounting of the events of the author’s life. Usually, we are pulled through an autobiography less by conflict and its resolution and more by our interest in the author because she/he is famous or familiar.  It must be true to life as the author experienced them.  In memoir, we consciously omit things and people that do not relate to the particular slice of life on which we are focused. We can add not events but sensory details that enhance the scene. We can also create dialogue as long as it is true to the event and the person speaking. Care should be taken, however, not to create someone else’s thoughts or motivations. All we know of another’s behavior is our own interpretation. While we can report on what we think or what we have thought of their thoughts and motivations; we cannot report them as their thoughts and motivations. Fictionalizing our lives provides a good alternative to memoir. Reasons to fictionalize our stories abound. We can protect identities. We can gain distance on people, so that we can truly see them as characters caught in their own dilemmas rather than people we assume we know. This distance allows us to see ourselves and our role in the drama in new and deeper ways. 

Memoir writing, anyone?

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow and a co-editor for PAReads: Journal of the Keystone State Literacy Association. She loves to take walks with her three Corgis and read mystery stories and poetry.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Rita K. #

    Such a helpful and comprehensive guide or writing memoir. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Lynn.


    March 4, 2022

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