Derived from the French word mémoire, meaning “memory,” the classic memoir is the recollection of a particularly vivid and important time in the author's life. The earliest memoirs date back to the fourth century, when writers described the intense religious and psychological experiences they underwent. More recent memoirs have offered up remembrances of the full range of situations that affect the human condition, and the most current tend to expose deeply personal and often painful times.
What makes authors want to share their private thoughts and experiences? It seems that this kind of storytelling could be embarrassing or shameful since it allows complete strangers to read about intimate details and perhaps difficult or even sordid situations that the writer was part of. Restaurant critic and gourmet extraordinaire Ruth Reichl says she was very worried what people would think after she published her collection of memoirs called Comfort Me with Apples, which details a love affair, the demise of her first marriage, the lowdown about cooking luminaries she worked with, the death of her father, and her romance with the man who became her second husband. Other authors, too, have found it hard to expose their lives to scrutiny and have been fearful of hurting people whom they mention in their work. Revisiting painful times can also be traumatic.
Is a memoir an autobiography?
In a sense it is, because it details part of the author's history. But an autobiography is the whole story, the author's whole history. It generally covers everything from one's birth and childhood to the present time and is written toward the end of one's life.
But many memoirists say they thoroughly enjoy — and gain a great deal from — writing about their past. They relive pleasurable moments. They rediscover someone or something that was once an important part of their life. By writing a memoir, they are able to confront lingering issues. They can connect with other people and share common experiences. They can better understand their own life and what drives others. They can move ahead by looking back. And they can discover they don't need to be living an extraordinary life to have something important to say.
The memoir focuses on a selected time of particular meaning and impact. Memoirs can be written by authors looking far into their past, but many memoirists are young and recount significant recent events. The memoir can be a fertile field for writers of every age and background, and a powerful way to write about important memories without taking on the sometimes overwhelming task of writing an autobiography.
Try to Remember
Because memoirs are personal histories, they need to be honest to honor the real-life people depicted in the story and to make those people real and believable. They also need to be honest because they deal with facts.
If you're wondering how you're ever going to remember the details of something that happened years ago, try these ideas for bringing it all back:
Interview (in person or by phone, e-mail, or snail mail) someone who would be familiar with the situation or at least the time period you are writing about: a family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, coach, or activity leader.
Search through old files and records, including photos, home movies, letters or postcards, diaries, even bills or bank statements from the time.
Look up important documents such as marriage or birth certificates, grant deeds, or car purchase papers.
Spend time at the library checking up on relevant historical, geographical, and cultural information. Try books, magazines, newspapers (newspaper offices also contain files of back issues), audio- and videotapes, and online sources.
If it's possible, revisit the “scene of the crime.” If you can't, try to visit a similar place. For example, if your memoir centers on an incident during college, visit a nearby college to bring back the feeling of being a student.
Sit quietly and try to visualize the time. What did you like to wear? Who were your friends? What did your home look like? What was going on in your life? In the world? Write everything down or speak into a tape recorder.