What does the word ‘memoir’ sound like to you? That’s right, the word 'memoir' closely resembles- ‘memories’! Well, that is precisely what memoirs are. Memoirs are a collection of memories written by an author aiming to capture stories from their own life. These 'memories' are usually notable events or experiences from the author’s life that have majorly impacted them in a certain way. The author then recounts these memories with factual and detailed narration to offer the reader a window into the very moment that is being described.

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Table of contents

    The memoir genre satisfies two of our most human desires: to be known and to know others.1

    But then, how does a memoir differ from other popular forms of non-fictive writing, like autobiographies? Let’s take a closer look at some of the features and famous examples of this form to find out.

    Memoir: meaning

    A memoir is a non-fictional narrative written from the point of view of the author, who recounts and reflects on a particular event or a series of events that have happened in their own life. These events are usually pivotal turning points in the author’s life that have led to some sort of personal discovery that either changed the course of their life or how they viewed the world. So essentially, memoirs are snippets that the author has handpicked from their life that are retold, keeping the intention of being as truthful and factual as memory allows. Therefore, memoirs are NOT fiction or imagination.

    However, just because a memoir is not fiction does not mean that it does not count as a 'literary' form of writing. Memoirists often zoom into particular incidents in their ‘real life’ and detail these incidents by using creative storytelling techniques. This means that memoirs also need the very same building blocks that any story needs- setting, characters, drama, dialogue, and plot. The style and language used to write a memoir are as important as the subject matter. It’s not just about what you’re saying, it’s about how you’re saying it as well. A good memoirist's skills lie in using these storytelling techniques to make the everyday, the real, seem new, interesting and strange. 2

    This is an extract from 'Airdale', one of the many memoirs in Blake Morrison's collection And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993). Notice how Morrisson weaves in vivid imagery to describe the scene of a traffic jam to make it all the more interesting and unique.

    His neck seems stiff; his head is thrust slightly forward, like a tortoise’s from its shell: it is as if it is being pushed from the back to offset the recession at the front, the literal loss of face. His hands, when he takes a sip from the clear plastic beaker of water, are gently shaking. He seems to be on the other side of some invisible divide, a screen of pain.

    In addition to presenting the story, the memoirist also considers the meaning of the memory. This includes the author’s thoughts and feelings during the event, what they learned, and a reflection on how this 'learning' impacted their life.

    Memoir vs autobiography

    Memoirs are often confused with autobiographies as they are both self-written biographies.

    However, the difference is simple. Autobiographies provide a comprehensive retelling of someone’s life from birth to death in chronological order. It involves more of a factual recording of one’s life, as opposed to an exploration of one’s memories.3

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou is an autobiography that covers Angelou's entire life span. It begins by describing her early life in Arkansas and chronicles her traumatic childhood involving sexual assault and racism. The first volume (out of the seven-volume series) takes readers through her multiple careers as a poet, teacher, actress, director, dancer, and activist.

    Memoirs, on the other hand, only zoom in on particular events that are memorable to the author. They cover these touchstone memories with great attention to detail and engage heavily with the author’s musings as much as the actual moment.

    autobiography is a story of a life; memoir is a story from a life.3

    Characteristics of a memoir

    Although memoirs are all unique in the sense that their content is personal and specific to their respective authors, all memoirs usually contain certain recurring characteristics.

    Narrative voice

    In memoirs, the narrator and author are always the same. Memoirs are also always told in the first person point of view (with ‘I’/ ‘My’ language). This adds to the subjectivity of memoirs because even though they are based on truthful events, how these events are presented to the reader is synonymous with the way the author experienced the event.

    This characteristic also ensures that every memoir is unique in the sense that it mirrors the storytelling approach of its author, their language and speaking patterns, and most importantly, their opinions.


    The main pact that exists between the author and the reader is that the author is presenting their version of reality as they believe it to be true. Remember, even though memoirs include the facts of an event, they are still subjective in the sense that they retell an incident as per how the author experienced it and how the author remembers it. The author is in no way responsible for retelling the incident from the perspective of how others may have experienced it. This also includes taking into consideration the weaknesses of human memory - not every detail can be factually recorded and remembered as it actually was, especially when it comes to dialogues. However, the author must avoid fabricating encounters and capture as much truth as possible.

    An essential part of representing reality is attention to detail. In memoirs, details matter: sometimes, they can be structured around one detail, one image from the author’s past.


    Memoirs are never published as standalone pieces. Usually, they are published in a series of anecdotes that are tied together by a common theme. This could be in the form of consistency in setting, i.e. all the memoirs are set in the same time or place. It could also be that the memoirs are united in their meaning and lesson in the author’s eyes.

    In House of Psychotic Women (2012), Kier-La Janisse narrates her life through the lens of her passion for horror and exploitation films. By mixing life accounts with film criticism on famous horror movies, she lets the readers in on how her passion for these movies is a window into her psyche.

    Uniqueness vs similarity

    We are all fascinated by what makes people different from one another. For a memoir to catch the reader's attention, it needs to contain something that sets the author apart as 'different'. Usually, a memoirist would avoid dwelling on mundane everyday activities. They would instead zoom in on pivotal moments in their life that stand out to them as bizarre, eccentric, or unique. Many times, these moments are obstacles that the author must overcome.

    At the same time, some memoirists often glorify the mundane, the everyday. By bridging a gap between the memoirist’s experiences and the readers’ experiences, memoirs may encourage deeper feelings of identification, sympathy, and empathy. However, even these experiences are of special significance to the author, making them stand out as unique against the rest of their lives.

    Hence, successful memoirs are often a strange compound of difference and sameness.4

    In Prozac Nation (1994), Elizabeth Wurtzel navigates seemingly mundane challenges such as college life, careers, and relationships in 1990s America. However, her experience of these mundane challenges is underlined by her struggle with teenage depression. This makes Wurtzel’s experiences stand out to readers, as every seemingly mundane challenge appears to be monumental and all the more unique.

    Emotional journey

    Throughout the 'action' of the memoir, the memoirist usually goes through a deeper emotional revelation or discovery. Hence, memoirs MUST engage with the memoirist’s thoughts and feelings both during the incident as well as after the incident, when the author is recounting it to the reader. Hence, readers not only want to know how the author experienced a certain event but also how the author makes sense of this experience.

    To write one’s life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical.5

    Memoirists have the opportunity to convey what they have learned from their experiences and help the reader gain insights into the lives of others and how these lessons may apply to their own.

    Hunger (2017) by Roxane Gay chronicles Gay’s struggle with an eating disorder that stems from early sexual assault. Gay guides the reader through her many unhealthy relationships: with food, partners, family and friends. The final part of the story challenges society’s fatphobia and imparts lessons on finding acceptance and self-worth in a way where these values are not connected to your size.

    Examples of memoirs

    Memoirs can be written by anyone, not just celebrities or famous people. Here are several popular memoirs written by ordinary people with a story to share.

    Night (1956)

    In this Nobel Prize Winning title, Elie Wiesel brings forward the horrors he experienced as a teenager in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The memoir contains snapshots of his family fleeing the Nazis, their capture and his arrival at Auschwitz, his separation from his mother and sister, and ultimately his grief following his father’s death. By engaging with deeper topics such as faith and the fight for survival, the memoir brings forth lessons on humanity and forgiveness.

    Eat, Pray, Love (2006)

    This 2006 memoir takes the readers through American writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s divorce and subsequent decision to travel to various countries in a journey that ends with self-discovery. She spends her time enjoying food in Italy ('Eat'), goes on a spiritual journey in India ('Pray'), and falls in love with a businessman in Indonesia ('Love').

    Eat, Pray, Love (2006) remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 187 weeks, and in 2010 it was adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts as the protagonist.

    The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

    This memoir opens with the first few lines author Joan Didion wrote immediately after her husband’s unexpected death. The memoir then continues to chronicle how the writer’s life changed after the loss of her husband and takes readers through her grief as she struggles to understand the meaning of death, marriage, and the persistence of love.

    Writing a memoir

    Here are some tips to get started writing your own memoirs!

    In order to write this kind of memoir, you don’t have to be famous but, rather, to want to turn your life experiences into well-honed sentences and paragraphs.3

    1. A good memoirist often draws on very early memories. So, write about your first-ever memory or any early memory you have. Perhaps people see the same incident very differently than you. Start by writing how you experienced this incident and how it affected you.

    Remember, memoirs have to pass the ‘So What?’ test. What about this incident would interest the reader? What would keep them turning the page? Perhaps it's because of the uniqueness or bizarreness of the incident. Or perhaps, it is the relatability of the incident that the readers may identify with.

    2. Now, start making a list of all the people present in this incident. What part did they play? Try to note down the dialogues exchanged to the best of your abilities.

    3. Focus on the tiny details. The event you choose might seem trivial on the surface, but you have to try to make it seem interesting to a reader who doesn’t know you. For instance, if the incident occurred in your kitchen, describe the various smells and sounds surrounding you. Remember, how you write matters at least as much as what you write about.

    4. While writing a memoir, you have to wear three different hats: that of the protagonist of the story, that of the narrator narrating it, and lastly, the interpreter trying to make sense of the story. Ask yourself questions like: why was this particular incident so important to you? What do you feel when you look back on this incident? Did this incident affect your later life? What have you learned, and most importantly, what can you teach?

    5. Now, structure the memoir in a logical sequence of events. Once you are done- you are ready to begin writing your first-ever memoir! Good luck!

    Memoir - Key takeaways

    • Memoirs are a collection of memories written by an author aiming to capture stories from their own life.
    • The style and language used to write a memoir are as important as the subject matter. It’s not just about what you’re saying, it’s about how you’re saying it as well.
    • An autobiography is a story of a life, whereas a memoir is a story from a life.
    • These are the characteristics of a memoir:
      • First-person narrative voice
      • Truth
      • Theme
      • Uniqueness vs Similarity
      • Emotional Journey
    • In addition to presenting the story, the memoirist also reflects on the meaning of the story.

    1. Jessica Dukes. 'What Is A Memoir?'. Celadon Books. 2018.
    2. Micaela Maftei. The Fiction of Autobiography, 2013
    3. Judith Barrington. 'Writing the Memoir'. The Handbook of Creative Writing, 2014
    4. Jonathan Taylor. 'Writing Memoirs. Morgen 'with an E' Bailey'. 2014
    5. Patricia Hampl. I Could Tell You Stories. 1999
    Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir

    What makes a memoir?

    A memoir is made of an author's memories written in first-person perspective, the facts of a real-life event and the thoughts and feelings of the author while experiencing this event.  

    What is a memoir?

    A memoir is a non-fictional collection of memories written by an author who is aiming to recount stories from their own life. 

    What is a memoir example?

    Famous examples of Memoirs include Night (1956) by Elie Wiesel, Eat, Pray, Love (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion.

    How do you start a memoir?

    Start a memoir by choosing a moment from your life that stands out as unique from the rest of your life. Start by writing how you experienced this incident and how it affected you.

    What does a memoir look like?

    A memoir looks like a collection of stories from an author's life that are of special significance to the author. Usually, a series of memoirs are bound together by a common theme or lesson.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is NOT a characteristic of memoirs?

    Which of these is NOT a memoir?

    Which of these memoirs is based in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany?


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