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Why write a life story?

"In every conceivable manner, the family is our link to the past and our bridge to the future." (Alex Haley)

As William Zinsser points out in his book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir memoir is defined as some portion of a life: “Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance.”


A memoir puts a frame on a life by limiting what is included and that limiting frame may be a:

  • particular period in your life (e.g. a coming of age memoir)

  • particular setting (e.g. an ecological memoir)

  • relationship with a certain individual or group

  • particular theme (e.g. being an immigrant in Canada)

  • vocation or occupation

  • philosophical view

  • spiritual quest of self discovery

  • adventure

  • historical

  • struggle with adversity

  • psychological illness

But memoir is much more than just a reporting of facts. The genre is used to tell the story and to muse upon it. The memoirist is not just a witness and participant in his/her past, but a commentator. As Tristine Rainer says in her book Your Life as Story “It [memoir] is customarily pursued by those who feel the need to bear witness to their truth. It is a way of saying ‘I matter; this life I have lived has meaning…Memoir fills the need to make sense for yourself out of the scattered pieces of your life–to see the pattern in the quilt’.”

Memoir’s unique reflexive voice is the characteristic that makes it so popular with readers, whether they are family or the general public. They are interested in how you make sense out of your life, and no matter how different your circumstances, the reader finds some commonality with your story and feels a little less alone in the world. The readership is sustained by the dramatic engagement between the self now and the self then.

Another characteristic unique to memoir is that it utilizes many of the same devices as fiction–plot and character development, scene building and dialogue–to make your story a compelling read. Why should you care about this? Your life is long and full of people and activities, some of which may not be that interesting to read about. No reader, even dedicated family members, can follow a chronological telling of facts stacked back to back without losing some interest. Readers want to read scenes and dialogue and about events that are structured for narrative flow. That’s why memoir is considered a work of creative non-fiction. It is also why so many people turn to experienced memoir writers to pen their life stories.

This characteristic is not a license to play fast and loose with the facts. Memoirists tend to lean on imagination as a way of bringing out the facts through such aspects as scene building. As Tristine Rainer points out, if the details of your life have been swept away by time and can’t be retrieved through research you have no choice but to turn to imagination. She asks, “what is reminiscence, after all, but memory mixed with imagination?” And let’s face it your memory of an event is bound to be different from that of a sibling or parent. Memoir is one of the most forgiving life writing genres in this respect, but still does not tolerate outright invention of events that did not happen.

If you want to read more about the use of imagination in memoir go to the posts on my blog and read:

What are the limits of imagination when writing a memoir?
How and why to muse/reflect on your life in memoir.

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