I have a lot of writing-guide books, all with numerous definitions of memoir. I’m just going to work from off the top of my head here, letting my own experience as a writer and reader inform my definition.
For a work to be considered a memoir, it needs…
- To be true. Memoirs are true stories. Now, there’s a lot of debate in nonfiction circles (and life in general) of what constitutes “the truth.” If you believe an event happened one way, and a relative believes it happened another way, who’s right? What’s “the truth”? In that case, what the writer believes to be the truth is the truth. I’m of the opinion that anything that can be verified should be, but not all memoirists subscribe to that. I believe that you shouldn’t knowingly make something up. You can know the truth, and then choose to report something different and still call it memoir.
- A focus. A hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes, or a litany of life events from birth to present day isn’t a memoir. That’s autobiography. A memoir needs to focus on a particular theme or period of time. This is why coming-of-age stories are perfect for memoir, or a year of traveling abroad, or the few months after a major life event like a loved one’s death, accident, divorce, etc. Look at published memoirs and you’ll see what I mean.
- A transformation. Something needs to change, otherwise why will people read it? This ties closely into the second bullet point. Big events tend to produce a transformation. But the change doesn’t need to be huge or outwardly noticeable. It can be quiet, as simple as a shift in a thought process. You can see this transformation beautifully in Tara Westover’s Educated. She’s sitting in her college classroom, learning about events she had never heard of, and you can almost see the lights going off in her head as she questions the way she was raised. *
- An inner story that ties to something universal. Memoir can’t be all scene, it can’t be all stories. What does it all mean? That’s the tricky part to capture. Westover has a dramatic story for sure, and many, many, unbelievable scenes. But even she is pulling it all together, telling readers what it meant to receive an education at age 17 when she had never stepped foot in a school before.
From here I could dive deeper and come up with other characteristics as well. But these four characteristics are major considerations and always need to be present. If anyone is just beginning to write memoir, these four characteristics will get them off to a good start.
* If you are writing personal stories and memories, but you don’t have a transformation, that can be written as an essay. I will save that explanation for another blog post.