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    Memoir or Autobiography: Which One's for You?

    You’re ready to start writing about your own life. As you begin, it’s a good idea to remember something novelist Gore Vidal said when he wrote his own memoir Palimpsest. “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double checked.” Politicians, generals, businessmen and philosophers may write autobiographies, but most people write memoirs.


    Judith Barrington, in her book Writing the Memoir, reminds us that for a long time, “…’memoirs’ …were a kind of scrapbook in which pieces of a life were pasted.” It was a record of the author’s life.

    In more recent days memoir has taken on a new cast. Barrington explains, “Rather than simply telling a story from her life the memoirist both tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of her current knowledge.” Memoir is a search for insight and understanding.


    That search involves three distinct stages:

    • Recall – The process of remembering what happened. As Willett Stanek put it in her book Writing Your Life: Putting Your Past on Paper. “Writing from memory allows you to time travel, to zoom back to people and places you have not seen in years.”
    • Reflection – The process of considering or realizing what was significant about the events you recall.
    • Reminisce – The process of thinking about what happened and how you might tell the story.

    By the time you complete your third stage you will be ready to understand the events of your life and to describe not only what happened but its meaning.

    When you are ready to write, remember you don’t have to deal with everything that ever happened to you. It may not be exactly as humorist Will Rogers once quipped, “Memoirs means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do." But you get to decide what to include. You may want to trace the whole arc of your life from childhood to old age or you may want to focus only on family, career, recovery from illness, or a year spent traveling around the world. The subject matter of your memoir can be whatever you choose.

    After all, it’s your story.

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