Everyone’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 more documentary, concentrating on events and chronology than reflection, and it covers your entire life to date of writing. Both memoir and autobiography are build 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?