One reader of my post on journaling told of notes written long after the fact, where journal blurs into memoir. I’ve never written a memoir longer than a few pages (“Of Choices and Trade-Offs: Reflections on a Twisted Path”), but I’ve read some that moved me deeply. They tell a unique personal narrative in a way that touches on shared human experience.
Autobiography was more common half a century ago: often by famous people, often with ghostwriters, meticulously researched, chronological from birth, focused on the facts. Over the years, memoir has grown in popularity. More subjective, more tied to recollection and emotion, most memoir revolves around a particular theme or time period in the author’s life. It’s literary nonfiction that reads almost like a novel, drawing readers into the intimate details of the story. The author’s fame doesn’t matter if the theme is distinctive and the writing is good enough.
While it’s bad form to play fast and loose with the facts, memoirs are less meticulous about precise detail than a straight autobiography. One reason is their literary quality. Like novelists, memoirists “show, don’t tell”—but who has a photographic memory? They recount dialogue, but who always carries a tape recorder?
Another reason is the nature of memory. Although a judge may instruct a jury to favor witnesses who recall events vividly, neurologists tell us that false memories are common. You reconstruct a memory from clues every time you pull it up. It may be vivid and filled with emotion, but that doesn’t prove it’s accurate. The memories that are hardest to check against external sources—deeply personal experiences and the feelings that went with them—are the ones most likely to keep us reading.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.