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What is a Memoir? – 10 Things to Know

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

What is a memoir? The answer to that question seems simple. But there’s a lot of confusion as to exactly what constitutes a memoir.

Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what it is not.

It’s not an autobiography, for that is a complete, factual account of your life from birth to the present day.

It’s not a journal or collection of musings.

And it’s not that string of amusing stories that your friends love to hear when you’re all gathered around the dinner table.

A memoir is a piece of your life

It’s a carefully selected “slice” of your life.

This “slice” revolves around a situation, experience, event, or interaction with others that brought forth powerful emotions or triggered profound insights. And these emotions or insights, positive or negative, challenged you and forced you to grow or change in a significant way.

It might be part exposé, for you might reveal something reprehensible, perhaps some of your own emotional “dirty laundry” or unsavory deeds done by others.

A memoir is akin to a novel; the principles of dramatic structure definitely apply. Your tale should be compelling, include some conflict, internal or otherwise, build to a climax, and have a satisfying resolution.

The best memoir offers readers a look into your heart and soul.

A memoir is a story

But it is not your life story. Rather, it’s a story you tell about yourself. About the way you felt and responded to a certain time, situation, problem, person, or event in your life.

Whether dramatic, humorous, nostalgic, or romantic, whether full of fireworks or fairly calm, a memoir should focus on your thoughts and feelings, challenges, and changes.

There are different types

All memoirs are the same in the sense that they show how the writer’s life has been influenced by something that happened to her.

There are specific types of memoirs, however, including coming of age, confessional, celebrity, travel, addiction and recovery, romance, family, grief, Christian, LGBTQ, business, and many more.

Examples of good memoirs and famous memoirs

Most famous memoirs are good, but not all good ones are famous. (See Barnes & Noble’s list of 50 Essential Memoirs.)

Here are short lists of the famous and the good:

Famous Memoirs

  • All Creatures Great and Small – by James Herriot
  • Out of Africa – by Isak Dinesen
  • Angela’s Ashes – by Frank McCourt
  • The Story of My Life – by Helen Keller
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – by Maya Angelou

Good Memoirs

  • The Glass Castle – by Jeannette Walls
  • Brain of Fire: My Month of Madness – by Susannah Cahalan
  • The Liar’s Club – by Mary Karr
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood – Alexandra Fuller

The autobiographical memoir is a chimera

This takes us back to the memoir versus autobiography issue.

Remember that a memoir focuses on the writer’s feelings and emotions, and her response to selected people, places, things, or events during a particular time part of her life.

An autobiography, on the other hand, is a factual presentation of all the important people, dates, places, and events in a person’s life. It’s a kind of a “blueprint” that allows you to reconstruct someone’s entire life.

So while there is some overlap between memoir and autobiography, they are not the same thing. There is also an overlap between memoir and life story, but they, too, are not the same thing.

The biographical memoir – does it exist?


Like an autobiography, a biography is a presentation of a person’s life, a complete recitation of the primary people, dates, places, and events in that life. (This difference is that with an autobiography you write about your life, while with a biography you write about someone else’s life.)

A memoir, by comparison, generally covers a “piece” of a person’s life, with an emphasis on the person’s thoughts and feelings during that time or episode.

There is an overlap between a biography and a memoir, and a memoir may contain a fair amount of biographical information. But they are not the same thing.

The memoir essay

A memoir essay is a short piece, perhaps the length of a school paper or magazine article, focusing on a particular event or significant person in the author’s life.

The essay is very much like a full-fledged memoir, but shorter and more focused on a single event or person.

The memoir is always true, is a way

It is “remembered history,” which means that the dialogue and situations are recounted to the best of the author’s recollection and the result is subjective.

Readers accept the fact that a memoir is the “truth” as far as the memoirist is concerned, because they are most interested in her response to what has happened, even though “what has happened” is always open to interpretation.

Key steps to writing a memoir

Begin with a great theme. The theme is the central problem, situation or question that drives the story. A strong theme can turn a collection of stories into a compelling memoir with a compelling point of view. Without a theme you can easily slip into the “and then I did” approach—which is deadly.

Next, pick stories that fit your theme. You may have loads of stories, many of which are your favorites, but if they don’t fit into your theme and build your central idea, leave them out. They will only weaken your memoir.

Engage your readers emotionally. To do so, you’ll need characters that they can identify with, a strong plot, and emotional tension. Focus on feelings, rather than the facts and build the emotional tension to a climax, which you’ll resolve at the end.

Make it more about feelings than facts – Memoirs are based on feelings, thoughts, and your reactions to whatever you were going through at a specific time. So reveal your feelings as much as possible. At the same time, avoid piling on the facts about the people, places, and events involved. Obviously, some facts are necessary, but too many will bog down your memoir and water down its emotional impact.

Finally, make your characters come alive. Find the characteristics, habits, words, and actions that will breathe life into your characters and inspire identification, delight, fear, anger, or other emotional responses in your readers. Well-drawn characters will keep them interested and emotionally involved.

Remember that the top three things that readers want from a memoir are theme, emotional engagement, and entertainment.

If you can provide all three throughout the manuscript, it’s highly likely that your readers will enjoy your presentation and stay with you to the end.

For more, see “How to Write a Memoir.”

Memoir writers have lots of helpers

Lots of people!

A memoir ghostwriter will help you write your memoir from scratch. All you have to do is tell your story to the ghost, and he or she will take it from there.

A writing coach will critique your manuscript as you’re writing it, giving you suggestions for strengthening the storyline or premise and improving the writing overall.

A developmental editor will take the manuscript you’ve already written, cut some sections and move others around, offer ideas for parts to add, and give you feedback on your writing style.

A line editor will go through your manuscript and help you improve your language usage to better convey your ideas, emotion, and story elements to your readers.

A copy editor will carefully comb through the final draft of your manuscript, looking for spelling and grammar mistakes and other problems.

A proofreader will check your manuscript for spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, usage and consistency, marking errors for your correction.

Whether you use the services of all of these experts or just one, they can do much to ensure that your ideas and stories are turned into a professionally-written memoir.

For more, see “Copyeditor or Proofreader: Which Do You Need?”


what is a memoir?

Do you need help writing your memoir?

If so, contact us!

We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.

For more information, call us at 818-917-5362 or use the contact form below to send us a message. We’d love to talk to you about your exciting idea!

Please Note: Although we’re based in Los Angeles, California, we travel around the U.S. and abroad to meet with our authors. We do not ghostwrite screenplays, books for children, poetry, or school papers.

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