Updated: Sep 12, 2022
Memoir comes from the French word for memory and is a genre of literature in which the author writes about their memories, usually going back to childhood. Unlike a biography or autobiography, it is not necessarily in chronological order and may often centre around a specific event in a person’s life, such as a particular tragedy or moment that changed the author’s life irrevocably. In this instance, the trajectory of the book may see the transformation of the author from victim to victor in what is known as a character’s arc. It may therefore read like a novel with an inciting moment that propels the author into having to become the hero of his or her own story, thereby surmounting various obstacles to reach the climax where the ultimate obstacle is overcome, and the denouement or resolution then follows. As a result, and just like a novel, there will be both inner and outer challenges with mounting tensions as the author digs deeper on their journey and ultimately finds the necessary skills to overcome the mounting strains, to become the hero of their own journey and thus story.
The older people become, the more likely the mind sifts the wheat from the chaff, leaving behind indelible memories which often contain certain clues to the most prescient parts of a person’s life. The exception in rare cases maybe where there has been significant trauma which can oftentimes eradicate memories altogether. All is not always lost, but the delicacy of such a journey may require professional input from say, a therapist or professional hypnotist trained in PTSD.
Important elements of a memoir are relativeness: is your journey one that people are able to relate to with their own life experiences? Authenticity: are you being yourself on the page and are you immersing the reader in the drama of your story rather than attempting to manipulate their perceptions with too much ‘tell’ over ‘show’? Again, these tools are regularly applied in fiction. If I tell you, ‘I waited in the heat for my husband to return’, the impression is far less than if I said, ‘A trickle of sweat ran along my spine as I stood waiting at the end of the drive. The air was so dry that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and, when eventually I saw Bill’s car, it appeared in the distance like a hesitant and half-formed mirage on the tarmac. I hoped my lipstick hadn’t melted.’
As with fiction, God is in the detail and dramatisation is the best way of immersing the reader thoroughly into your world. The book also needs to ideally make the reader think, either in terms of relating the story to their own life, or to the world at large. The author needs to be therefore willing to be both authentic and vulnerable in their telling, so that if done well it can create an intimate and enduring relationship to the reader.
Finally, like good fiction, there needs to be a degree of conflict. Nobody wants to know about happy childhoods where cake baking mothers wheeled out perfectly prepared picnics. They need the grit in order to properly understand how the eventual pearl was fashioned and this comes back to the theme of your story. For that, you will need to pick a trajectory such as good versus evil, or that love prevails, or how courage and perseverance leads to success or redemption. Once you have decided the theme, the details can be added to the theme’s scaffolding and your hero’s journey can commence!