Since childhood I’ve loved reading memoirs and biographies. My passion began when my mother would take me for weekly trips to the local public library. I handed my library card the lady behind the counter as I held a stack of biographies reaching all the way up to my chin. I could keep the books for two weeks, and then return to get a whole new pile. In the library, I loved reading real-life stories about real people, and my passion continues until today.
Reading stories about real people helps us understand how real people live their lives. In reading their stories we are given ideas of not only how to navigate our own lives, but also how to write the story of our own lives.
The difference between a biography and a memoir is that a biography is written in third person by someone else. An autobiography is closer in style to the relatively new term, “memoir,” but an autobiography is written about an entire life, whereas a memoir is about a slice of life. A memoir has a theme or focus. A memoir is also different because the narrative includes reflection — sort of looking back and examining on our lives with our current perspective.
There are many reasons people might be inspired to write a memoir. Often, it is because of a burning need to do so. Most memoirists feel that they have a story that only they can tell. Others might have secrets to share, or maybe they want to write a memoir to understand a situation.
Other reasons someone might want to write a memoir is to preserve a family’s legacy or to heal from a traumatic experience. It’s important to remember that when we write a memoir, we are writing our version of what happened. We might live in the same house with someone who saw things differently. It doesn’t make their story wrong and ours right. It just means that we all have different perspectives, and when we write we are writing our own emotional truth about an event, no one else’s.
If we want to write a memoir, it’s important to read published memoirs to see how they are written. One good example is writer Maxine Hong Kingston has two published memoirs. She said that her inspiration for writing her memoirs was all about being an immigrant family and studying the ghosts from her Asian past.
The ghosts she was referring to have to do with her aunt’s suicide because she was afraid of the consequences of raising an out-of-wedlock child. Kingston had to hold onto this secret of why her aunt took her life, until all key family members passed away. Holding onto secrets can be quite stressful. She shared this story in her beautifully-crafted memoir, The Woman Warrior.
One important thing about writing a memoir is to identify the focus of the memoir, which is often connection to our life theme. Many memoirists are also journal keepers. Going back and reviewing old journals can help us identify patterns and themes in our life, and may serve as a guide to the memoir’s focus.
If you want to share your story, it’s important to remember that people like to read dramatic, sensational and fast-moving stories, rather than stories which have a “woe as me” tone. What the reader does want to hear is how the writer was transformed as a result of their experience. They want to know how the experience changed them.
This is why reflection is an important aspect of writing a memoir. My cancer diagnosis resulted in a lot reflection because I wondered about the genetic component, and I wondered if my grandmother committed suicide because she had cancer.
What inspired me to write my memoir was my mother finding my grandmother’s journal, which shared details of her being orphaned during World War I, but she did not indicate that she had cancer.
I believe that, besides illness, trauma, and life’s joy can all provide the inspiration for writing a memoir. It is normal for our understanding of our lives to change during the life cycle. Further, when we reach a certain age we begin to contemplate writing our stories because we’ve finally gotten enough distance from certain events and have a better perspective about them.
I read somewhere that many writers need to wait at least ten years before writing about an event that happened to them. The interval gives us time to reflect and to add those reflections to our memoir, which is essential to make it compelling. Sometimes it takes longer than a mere decade.
Writing a memoir can lead to self-discovery and transformation because it gives us a chance to examine our lives with a more mature perspective. When beginning to write a memoir, what I tell my students is to just write and edit later. In summary, the reason to write a memoir is to tell a good story!