Writing the memoir

Did you know that there is a difference between writing “memoirs’ and writing “a memoir?” Well, I didn’t. This week I have been reading Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington (1997). Her book is unexpectedly delightful and inspiring.

Memoirs are in the same category as autobiographies–a basic written account of facts–whereas, in the memoir, the writer reflects on the meaning of what happened, adding personal interpretation and judgment. According to Barrington, in a “contemporary literary memoir….the memorist tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in the light of her current knowledge” (p. 20).

What I found particularly interesting is that Barrington encourages memorists to look for themes in their lives. Writing is then collected around these themes.

A memoir has to be very selective in what it includes, or Barringtong warns, you will end up with a huge, sprawling autobiography. The memories of our lives are all connected but in the memoir it is vital to leave things out (p. 56).

At the end of each chapter the book offers helpful assignments to get you started on writing. One assignment asks the reader to list ways to focus a memoir. The memoir may be focused around a defined period of time, for instance, “The year I….” It can also be focused around the writer’s relationship to something–a pet, a place you have lived, a favorite activity, or an event.

A memoir can be short or long. Short memoirs might be collected as chapters of a book. The important thing is to remain focused. And, as a last thought,

Most people only ever write one autobiography, but you may write many memoirs over time (p. 24).