Memoir Is Like a Novel, Not Autobiography
I feel sorry for the creative nonfiction subgenre of memoir. It is so misunderstood. Even I didn’t fully understand what a proper memoir was until I decided to take a deep dive into it about four years ago. I’ve said in earlier blog posts that I blame libraries and bookstores, whether online or brick and mortar, for perpetuating this confusion. Memoir is always lumped together with biography and autobiography. Now, if you are coming at memoir simply as a reader, this distinction might seem petty. You’ll get your hands on a memoir, biography, or autobiography and learn something about someone. If your goal is to learn everything you can about a person’s life, then biography and autobiography are what you want. I’ll show you.
Here are the first two paragraphs from Nelson Mandela’s bestselling autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:
Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means "pulling the branch of a tree," but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be "troublemaker." I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered. My more familiar English or Christian name was not given to me until my first day of school. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I was born on the eighteenth of July, 1918, at Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata, the capital of the Transkei. The year of my birth marked the end of the Great War; the outbreak of an influenza epidemic that killed millions throughout the world; and the visit of a delegation of the Afriçan National Congress to the Versailles peace conference to voice the grievances of the African people of South Africa. Mvezo, however, was a place apart, a tiny precinct removed from the world of great events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years.
Mandela’s opening paragraphs are classic autobiography—a quick jump into the facts about the beginnings of his life. Here’s another to make my point. These are the first two paragraphs from Love, Lucy, Lucille Ball’s autobiography:
I'm a Leo. I was born on a Sunday, August 6, 1911. Unfortunately, everybody knows my birth date because I told the truth when I first came to Hollywood. I grew up not on the sidewalks of New York City, as some people think, but in the beautiful resort area of Lake Chautauqua, New York, near the green, wooded Allegheny wilderness. I used to say I was born in Butte, Montana--I thought it sounded more glamorous than western New York.
I was conceived in Montana when my father was working for his father as a lineman at Independent Telephone Company in Anaconda. But I was born at my grandparents' apartment on Stewart Street in Jamestown, New York, where I was delivered by my grandmother Flora Belle Hunt.
Do you see a pattern? When and where they were born. Their birth name. Grandparents and parents. That’s classic biography and autobiography—chronological life facts. You read a biography or autobiography to learn everything about a person—99.9% of the time, a famous person.
That is not the role of memoir.
Now, here are the first two paragraphs from the glorious, bestselling memoir Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, about her twenty-one-year love affair with alcohol:
I drank. I drank Fumé Blanc at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and I drank double shots of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks at a dingy Chinese restaurant across the street from my office, and I drank at home. For a long time I drank expensive red wine, and I learned to appreciate the subtle differences between a silky Merlot and a tart Cabernet Sauvignon and a soft, earthy Beaucastel from the south of France, but I never really cared about those nuances because, honestly, they were beside the point. Toward the end I kept two bottles of Cognac in my house: the bottle for show, which I kept on the counter, and the real bottle, which I kept in the back of a cupboard beside an old toaster. The level of liquid in the show bottle was fairly consistent, decreasing by an inch or so, perhaps less, each week. The liquid in the real bottle disappeared quickly, sometimes within days. I was living alone at the time, when I did this, but I did it anyway and it didn't occur to me not to: it was always important to maintain appearances.
I drank when I was happy and I drank when I was anxious and I drank when I was bored and I drank when I was depressed, which was often. I started to raid my parents' liquor cabinet the year my father was dying. He'd be in the back of their house in Cambridge, lying in the hospital bed in their bedroom, and I'd steal into the front hall bathroom and pull out a bottle of Old Grand-Dad that I'd hidden behind the toilet. It tasted vile--the bottle must have been fifteen years old--but my father was dying, dying very slowly and gradually from a brain tumor, so I drank it anyway and it helped.
Let me tell you, that’s a brilliant opening to a memoir. And I can’t imagine I need to spend much time explaining the stylistic differences between the start of Mandela’s and Ball’s autobiographies and the opening of Knapp’s memoir. The closest Knapp gets to offering family history is:
Alcohol travels through families like water over a landscape. . . . In some families, alcohol washes across whole generations, a liquid plague.
Her family history, mentioned briefly, is important to her memoir only to demonstrate that alcohol consumption is often a family tradition, or as she puts it, “It’s encoded in your DNA, embedded in your history. . . .” Knapp’s theme—what her memoir is about—is analyzing her early attraction to drinking (age fourteen), the adverse effects drinking had on her education, career, and relationships, and how she emerged triumphant from its grip.
Memoir as a Kind of Novel
As a memoir writing coach, potential clients are often surprised when I say that a memoir should be written like a novel, not like an autobiography. And some don’t like it and don’t want to hear it. But, at the very least, a memoir must have a point; if it doesn’t, well then, it’s not really a memoir.
At this point, I’m nearly overcome with the urge to repeat everything I wrote in my February 2022 post Memoir is a Journey Story and my March 2022 post Three-act Structure for Memoir Ensures the Best Read. What’s different about this post is, I always say memoir is not autobiography but I’ve never offered excerpts as examples. Now I have and I could do this all day long. I’ll prove it; here's the second paragraph from the autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi:
Ota Gandhi [his grandfather] married a second time, having lost his first wife. He had four sons by his first wife and two by his second wife. I do not think that in my childhood I ever felt or knew that these sons of Ota Gandhi were not all of the same mother. The fifth of these six brothers was Karamchand Gandhi, alias Kaba Gandhi, and the sixth was Tulsidas Gandhi. Both these brothers were Prime Ministers in Porbandar, one after the other. Kaba Gandhi was my father. He was a member of the Rajasthanik Court. It is now extinct, but in those days it was a very influential body for settling disputes between the chiefs and their fellow clansmen. He was for some time Prime Minister in Rajkot and then in Vankaner. He was a pensioner of the Rajkot State when he died.
Gandhi was a brilliant freedom fighter and moral activist, but a few pages of this and I’m in dreamland. It is classic autobiography, though.
To close this out, I will repeat the point I most want you to remember:
A memoir is not the recounting of stuff that happened to you. Stuff happens to everybody. A proper memoir must contain reflection. . . . No meaning, no memoir. No transcendence, no memoir. No takeaway for the reader, no memoir.
Let me know if I can help you craft your memoir.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.