MEMOIR: TOWARD A DEFINITION
A man's experiences of life are a book. There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.
In his book Inventing the Truth (1998), writer William Zinsser offers this observation: "Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us." Zinsser then notes a major distinction:
Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn't possible in autobiography; memoir is a window into life.
This episodic structure has become widely accepted, and for good reason: it greatly eases the writing task, and provides some immediate payoffs:
- It allows writers to avoid a strict linear line, and to focus on memorable moments, peak experiences, and major turning points.
- It provides opportunities to skip over seasons and years, and to focus on intervals or phases--and even to step back (from time to time) and widen the story telling.
- It accommodates stories that don't easily fit together, and clears away the need for smooth transitions.
- It allows for great authorial freedom, and the option to describe an idea, or a value, or a discovery--topics that possess a more scholarly or intellectual bent.
The list could go on. The memoirist, using various literary devices, lays out the events (the episodes) and then directly or indirectly conveys their significance, simultaneously recounting the stories while musing upon them—weaving in observations, reflections, and remembered emotional responses. Over time, this pivotal events approach will lead to a set of mini-memoirs, a memoir anthology that may (probably will) add up to some version of a life story.
Your purpose may largely determine your structure, and the final structure and content may emerge over time--as you continue to write, and as the story unfolds.