Honoring the Simple Story

Memory-TreeEveryone’s talking about memoir. It’s a hot genre to read, and definitely a hot genre to write. More people than ever come to writing classes with the stated intention of “Writing my memoir.” I’m firmly in the camp of those who support this intention, but with a caveat: few people who bandy the term around have any idea what it means, or the difference between autobiography, lifestory and memoir. 

As you can see from my oft-used “Tree of Life Writing” graphic, memoir is a complex writing form that draws on increasingly polished levels  of simpler writing. At the base is what I refer to as Raw Writing, a form that flows onto the page spontaneously and unedited. Its most structured form is journaling, which is generally kept in a volume for at least a period of time. Freewriting and rants may be discarded as soon as finished.

Although it is not included in the Tree image, autobiography is another umbrella form. Memoir is a slice of life, zooming in on a specific time period or topic. It is thematic and reflective. Autobiography tends to be documentary, concentrating more on events and chronology than reflection, and it covers your entire life to date of writing. Both memoir and autobiography are built from smaller component stories.

Stories and essays are relatively simple documents, focused primarily on a single topic or concept, and usually short in length. They can be as carefully edited and polished as you wish. They are well-suited for focusing on specific events, memories, or beliefs. They’re a perfect way for letting descendants know about ancestors and family history.

Memoir is the most complex mode, frequently composed of a mélange of short stories and essays blended into an integral unit. Scenes within the larger work are derived from stories – prewritten or freshly composed – and essay material may contribute to reflective elements.

I value and teach each of these forms, but I have a special soft spot for the simple story. I didn’t yet understand the full extent of the complexity and benefits of writing memoir when I wrote The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, which zeroes in on short story writing basics, placing them within the larger context. Even in my expanded state of understanding, were I to begin it now, I would keep that focus. There is a certain dignity and power in a short, focused story.

Short stories are an ideal place for new writers to begin, and many experienced writers choose to stick with this form rather than moving to the more complex memoir. The thought of writing an entire volume of anything is enough to send most people running in fear. But a story … we all know stories. Writing a simple story seems doable. Nearly anyone can write one story. And then another. If you write one story a week, you’ll have at least fifty by the end of a single year. If you skip a week now and then, you’ll still have a respectable pile.

Once you accrue a few dozen, you may want to begin organizing and sharing them in collections I refer to in the book as “Story Albums.” These make great gifts. Although the album is  not a formal memoir, it does serve most of the same purposes, and is far easier to assemble. Depending on how you package it, you can continue to add stories, occasionally, or  as you write them. You’ll find general instructions for doing this in my book, and Linda Thomas gives easily followed specific ones in her most recent Spiritual Memoirs post.

You still have time to make such a gift for giving this holiday season, but you’ll have to get started soon.

 Write now: If you haven’t already begun to write, get busy and write a story about Thanksgiving. Use one of these ideas as a prompt: What do you remember about Thanksgiving as a child? How did your family celebrate? What did you like and dislike most? What vivid memories come to mind? What is Thanksgiving like for you and your family today? What has changed? What do you think and how do you feel about that?


Linda said...

Sharon, thanks for the link to my recent blog post.

I found your post here today full of valuable, inspirational stuff. I especially appreciate your encouragement to keep writing by taking manageable steps: "If you write one story a week, you’ll have at least fifty by the end of a single year. If you skip a week now and then, you’ll still have a respectable pile." Amen! Just think--fifty stories in a year.

Thanks, Sharon, for the many ways you inspire so many of us writers.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Sharon Lippincott said...

Any task seems easier when broken into small steps. I wish that were the case with cleaning the shower!


I wonder, is memoir really hot? I'd like to think so but from my observations it sure takes a backseat to other genre. Sad. Everyone has true stories and to me they're so much more interesting than something the imagination can conjure up. Great post Sharon.

Sharon Lippincott said...


I had heard for awhile that it was outselling fiction, but I don't recall where I heard that and have been unable to verify it. It may be one of the top sellers in NON-fiction, and perhaps it's the Big Name memoir, like Glass Castle and Eat, Pray, Love that get noticed.

But hey, almost nobody makes money writing books. Few people even cover the cost of producing one -- at least if they have to pay for editing, etc. So we write for ourselves, and the investment is well worthwhile.

SuziCate said...

Sharon. Thank you for always posting information and inspiration to keep us writing. So far this months I've taken seven days of no writing at all and am still slightly over 51,000 words of free writing. Next month, I'll select stories to expand, edit, and polish. Then I'll work on how I'm going to connect and form....almost sounds overwhelming when I write all those steps. I've been focusing on one thing at a time and that has gotten me this far. I seem to scare myself when I think too far ahead!

Sharon Lippincott said...



That you have so much written in only two weeks is totally amazing. When you finish this one, you can write another book, maybe an eBook, on how you did it!

Linda Austin said...

I like writing short stories because I don't have a memoir in me. Memoirs require some kind of overall story arc, a message, which I don't have in my life, at least not at this point.

kathleen said...

Sharon, This is such an inspirational and enlightening post. You make sense of everything related to lifestory writing. Your tree image is brilliant! I really like all the options you've laid out- from free writing to writing short stories and stringing them together into a book. Writing an entire memoir is daunting but breaking it down into "manageable steps" makes it seem do-able. Thanks for the reminder to just keep writing our stories and they will shape themselves one way or the other!

Anonymous said...

Writing as a gift. By all means let us give our selves that gift. And if it seems to have a market, send it to a publisher. However, I am dubious to the idea of pestering friends and relatives with our writings.

Sharon Lippincott said...

While I appreciate the input of Anonymous, I don't think s/he quite gets the picture. Perhaps his/her relatives don't want to know more about family members, but many others do. And the odd of finding a publisher are close to those of winning the lottery. Many options exist for those who don't have a winning ticket or want to jump through the required hoops.