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Memoir: The Third Level of Life Story Writing

Biff Barnes

When you set out to write a memoir, keep in mind that your readers’ first question will be, “What’s in it for me?”

One of the problems I see among people who set out to write a memoir (an family histories as well) is that they don’t understand that there are different levels on which they might write about their life.

Courtesy of Julie Scott Jordan under Creative Commons

Many initial drafts of memoirs read like diaries. The authors seem intent on getting the facts of what happened correct. They chronicle what they ate, where they went, the controversy with a co-worker, the concert they attended and the accident that they barely avoided on the way home. They may describe the events very well, but their draft remains on the first level of life writing, creating a record.

Others take things a step further by reflecting on what happened as one would do in a journal. They add thoughts, feelings, goals, disappointments, dreams, etc. to their record of what happened. For example, they recognize that one of the reasons they have failed to achieve a goal is that they did not prepare well for the challenge they faced. Maybe they also recognized that this has been a pattern in their life. Insights of this sort move life story writing to a higher level than merely recording what happened. But the insights remain personal.

A well-written memoir moves beyond the facts and personal insights to allow readers to find meaning in the story that applies to their own lives. A memoirist is not a reporter, she is an interpreter. Novelist Gore Vidal, who also produced a couple of fine memoirs, said, “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double checked.”

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, put it well when she wrote, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened.”

To reach the level of writing required of a well-written memoir a writer must deal with the themes which emerge from her life. She must be able to answer the question,” So what?” in a way that allows her readers to generalize her insights and  apply them to their own lives.