Let’s be real, the first thing many people think when you tell them you’re writing a memoir is, “Well, you must have a very high opinion of yourself!” They may find it a little audacious and egocentric that you’d want to write a whole book about your life—especially if you’re under the age of forty. After all, what kind of life experience do you have?
The truth is that when most people hear “memoir,” what they’re really thinking is autobiography. But there’s a key difference!
Although memoirs are biographical, an autobiography chronicles the timeline of events and facts about a person’s life, often highlighting personal achievements and contributions to society. This is why so many autobiographies are written (or co/ghost-written) by celebrities, political figures, or thought leaders with large followings.
A memoir, on the other hand, focuses on a window of time in an individual’s life and follows a specific experience or journey of internal transformation. Because they tap into universal themes, anyone can enjoy a memoir when it’s done well, whether they’re an Oxford literature student (or a bee-keeper) or not. A person typically only gets one autobiography in their life, but they may choose to write more than one memoir.
Since memory is a memoirist’s primary source material, the genre takes its name from the French word for memory. This doesn’t mean fiction writers, poets, and playwrights aren’t drawing from the same thing. But memoirs read like a novel and yet are rooted in personal, real life experiences.
You don’t have to be anybody to write a memoir. You just have to pay attention. That being said, it helps if you’ve lived through at least a few things and are able to write in an interesting way. Thankfully, both of these can come with time and practice. Memoirs can be humorous and winsome; candid and confessional; tender, poetic, and provocative—or anywhere in between. If you have a voice, you can write memoir.
When you write from your life, you’ll have to make some important decisions unique to this genre. Like how much of yourself you’re willing to expose and what your underlying motivations are for telling the story. You’ll want to consider who to include, how it may impact them, and whether or not to change the names or collapse different individuals into a single character. There’s a fine line between emotional honesty and invasion of privacy, but that’s a line that has to be determined by an author and a publisher. (It also doesn’t hurt to have a sibling who went to law school!) There are resources to help guide you in digital ethics and the legal implications of including other people in your story, but at the end of the day, it’s still a field with few black and white rules.
Long story long, memoir is not the same as autobiography. The reason why I adore this style of writing is the window it gives you into the human soul. People are endlessly fascinating—a well of mystery and insight you can never plumb the depths of. And sometimes even a seemingly mundane life can make for the most beautiful story if the witness has the eyes to see it and the courage to tell it.
I’ve read some great memoirs in my day. In the next piece, I plan to share my fifteen favorites with you, so get your Amazon cart queued up and ready to go! For now, I’ll leave you with the words of the one-and-only Anne Lamott: “We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving [writing] can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again.”
Bailey Gillespie is a California girl at heart, living in Nashville Tennessee. She’s passionate about the intersection of creative writing, wellness, and spiritual formation and loves throwing dinner parties—complete with a great playlist. Her writing has appeared at She Reads Truth, The Rabbit Room, Worship Leader Magazine, and Voice of Courage. You can find her on Instagram @bailey_bluebird.