Rhetoric and Composition/Memoirs

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A memoir is a form of first-person nonfiction writing that portrays a person's experiences during periods of his or her life. Influential people, such as former U. S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, often write lengthy memoirs depicting the many critical events of their time in office. Some celebrities write memoirs, or they have ghostwriters help them (or write them entirely). However, fame is not a prerequisite for writing a memoir; any writer who thoughtfully reflects on events in his or her life can write a memoir that will interest others.

Memoirs differ from autobiographies in that they do not cover the person’s entire life; they retell, in a narrative format, significant events or experiences from it. For instance, someone might write about her daughter’s illness or traveling the world – both could make interesting subjects of a memoir. Not all memoirs have to center on uncommon or fascinating events, though; even average experiences can be made into exceptional memoirs if the writer brings them to life with skillful storytelling, and if she communicates a message worth hearing.

Getting Started

If you’d like to write a memoir but are not sure how, it might be a good idea to start small. Think of a significant event in your life and consider how it impacted you, and keep that impact in mind while you’re writing. To begin writing, simply start recording the event and everything you remember seeing, thinking, smelling, feeling, etc. From this recollection of the experience, you can choose which details matter for the story. The most important ones will likely stand out, but even some of the periphery details, like the mustard stain you noticed on your father’s shirt as he yelled at you for coming home late, can bring a narrative to life and tie into the memoir, even if you initially thought they had nothing to do with the story. You may be surprised what else you have to learn about an experience once you’ve begun to write about it.

It can be hard to recall little details from a past event, especially if it happened a long time ago. If you’re struggling to write a recollection, it might help to attempt to partially relive the event. You can do this rather easily by looking at photos taken at the event itself or during that period of your life. If possible, it could be really helpful to visit the place where it happened. If not, looking at and holding whatever material items you still have from that period of your life may help some details resurface. If you’re willing to spend a little time re-immersing yourself in that time period, you could try listening to the music you loved then or rereading a book that had an impact on you. Essentially, you want to attempt to put yourself back in the mindset you were in then so you can more fully reconstruct what you may have experienced during that event. Furthermore, if you can talk to other people who were there, they may be able to fill in some of the details you’re missing.

Although memoirs are supposed to be factual, no one’s memory is perfect, so you may have to invent some details. Unless you’re fabricating the story entirely or painting very inaccurate or unfair depictions of people, there’s no need to feel bad about making up some details in order to tell the story and communicate the message. Some details even get in the way of your story and can be cut out without compromising the message. What matters most is that you feel your memoir tells the truth. Also, remember that even if another person’s recollection of the event doesn’t match up perfectly with yours, you are telling your story; their experiences might help you recall and reflect on your own, but they don’t need to be accounted for in your memoir.