A memoir (MIM-wahr) is a literary form in which the author relates and reflects on experiences from their own life. Memoirs and autobiographies share many similarities, as both are types of self-written biographies. But while an autobiography provides a comprehensive account of someone’s life, a memoir is a series of formative or notable memories or events that impacted the author in some way. Memoirs also focus on the author’s thoughts and feelings about those events, what they learned, and how they integrated the experiences into their life.
The term memoir comes from the early 15th century Anglo-French word memorie, meaning “written record” or “something written to be kept in mind.”
The History of the Memoir Genre
The literary genre of memoir has been around since ancient times. One of the first prominent memoirs was Commentaries on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar, in which Caesar recounted his exploits fighting in the Gallic Wars. During the Middle Ages, historians Geoffrey of Villehardouin and Jean de Joinville and diplomat Philippe de Commines wrote notable memoirs. French princess Margaret of Valois was the first woman to write a modern memoir during this period.
Memoirs have been (and continue to be) a popular genre. Henry David Thoreau released Walden in 1854, recording his experiences living simply in the New England woods. Out of Africa (1937) recounts Isak Dinesen’s time attempting to start a coffee plantation in Kenya. A Moveable Feast (1964) is Ernest Hemingway’s account of his years as an American expatriate in Paris in the 1920s. Travels with Charley: In Search of America is a travel memoir by John Steinbeck, chronicling an epic road trip with his poodle. All of these have become classics of the genre.
The Elements of Memoirs
Nearly all memoirs contain six main elements that serve to communicate the story of the author’s life clearly and realistically to the reader.
An Emotional Journey
The memoirist goes through some type of emotional evolution over the course of their story, which helps readers identify with the author’s struggle. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is about Strayed grieving the end of her marriage and the death of her mother, reflected in her challenging backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Obstacles are the things standing in the way of the author getting what they want or need. Overcoming obstacles builds tension within a story and keeps the reader turning the page. Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel charts her struggle to conquer depression as a young woman in 1990s America. The obstacle of mental illness is further complicated by other, more mundane obstacles in Wurtzel’s life, like going to college, working her first professional job, and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, Wurtzel doesn’t so much defeat her depression as she does manage it through medication and other supports.
Point of View
Memoirs are always told in first person point of view, using I/me/my language. This makes the story personal and the experiences subjective. In fact, objectivity is difficult to achieve in memoirs since the narrative is filtered through the author/subject’s perspective. Author Steve Almond once said, “Memoirs are radically subjective versions of objective events.”
A memoir is tied together by a common topic, premise, or lesson. This theme is not the author’s life as a whole; if it is, then the book is an autobiography. A memoirist doesn’t set out to capture all the critical moments of a life—only those that have special significance. For instance, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book of writing instructions connected by the larger theme of lessons Lamott has learned about life and faith.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of any memoir or autobiography, truth is essential to telling a relatable story. Even in cases where an author had an epic, larger-than-life, or downright strange experience, the emotional truth of the described events must resonate with readers to some extent. Readers trust that a memoirist will tell the truth, and if the memoirist violates that trust, it can be scandalous at best and career-destroying at worst.
For example, after the publication of James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, evidence emerged that Frey invented key parts of the story. The revelation rocked the literary world; his lack of honesty undermined what readers believe is an authorial responsibility to accurately tell a story, as well as the publisher’s duty to truthfully market their books.
Every memoirist writes their book in their own unique voice. Voice is the style in which a writer writes: the way they convey their thoughts, their word choices and patterns, and their storytelling approach. A reader finishes a memoir with a distinct idea of the author’s voice in their head. For example, Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic chronicles the actor’s affection for electroconvulsive therapy, which she feels saved her life multiple times over. Fisher blends her wisecracking sense of humor with a serious dedication to raising mental health awareness and helping others, resulting in a voice uniquely her own.
Memoirists can tell their stories in a number of ways. Framing devices are popular structures for memoirs, opening and closing with more recent events and, in between, going back in time to earlier events.
Many authors construct their memoirs as a series of anecdotes or short snapshots about their lives. This has been a popular approach in recent years with several notable essay collections receiving widespread attention and landing on bestseller lists. For instance, actors Anna Kendrick and Mindy Kaling released personal essay collections largely centered around their Hollywood experiences.
Famous people, however, are not the only ones who write successful memoirs. Ordinary folks often have just as, if not, more interesting stories to tell. A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas explores the author’s life after her husband suffers a traumatic brain injury; Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously charts Julie Powell’s attempts to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and Running with Scissors is about a very bizarre period in the childhood of writer Augusten Burroughs, in which his mother’s mentally unstable psychiatrist becomes Burroughs’s guardian.
Other common memoir subjects include addiction, mental illness, difficult childhoods, spiritual or religious quests, travelogues, and political careers.
The Function of Memoirs
A memoir gives an author an opportunity to share what they have learned from specific life experiences. Instead of recording every major life event, a memoir focuses on certain details around a central theme. This approach helps the author find clarity and meaning in their lives.
Memoirs also help readers gain insights, both into the lives of others and their own. Memoirs invite readers into someone else’s mind, and in doing so provide answers, a sense of humor, common ground, and/or interesting or unique stories that speak to life’s challenges or absurdities.
- Sarah M. Bloom, The Yellow House
- Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones
- Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors, A Wolf at the Table
- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights
- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass
- Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic
- James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave
- Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives
- Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club, Cherry
- Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
- Patti Smith, Just Kids, M Train
Examples of Memoirs
1. Elie Wiesel, Night
Night tells the story of Wiesel’s time in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during World War II. The memoir opens with Wiesel and his family fleeing their small Transylvanian hometown before Nazis capture them. When they arrive at Auschwitz, the Nazis separate Wiesel and his father from his mother and sister. Grappling with his faith and fighting for survival, Wiesel must also care for his ailing father.
Eventually, the Nazis send them to other camps before the two ultimately arrive at Buchenwald. Wiesel’s father dies just before the Allies liberate the camp, and though Wiesel survives, the experience haunts him forever. Night is not only about his experiences but what those experiences taught him about humanity and forgiveness.
2. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s record of the first year of her life after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. One evening, Dunne suddenly collapses, and Didion’s life is forever changed. She devotes the next year to analyzing his death, trying to make sense of it, while navigating the turbulent waters of her own grief. She relies on the power of words, medical and psychological research, and her own “magical thinking”—the false belief that her thoughts or actions will change the course of events—to get her through.
3. Roxane Gay, Hunger
Hunger is Gay’s memoir of her relationship with her body and food. This relationship is rooted in an early sexual trauma, and she subsequently turns to food as a means of protecting her vulnerable body from the world. She thinks that by overeating, she will make her body unappealing to men and thereby prevent another violation. Gay struggles with eating and her weight for many years afterward, and there is no easy resolution. She ultimately begins to embrace her own worth and understands that her value is not in any way connected to her size.
Further Resources on Memoir
In The New Yorker, Stephanie Burt discusses “Literary Style and the Lessons of the Memoir.”
A University of California, Berkeley, website delves into the history of memoirs and profiles a few notable contributions to the genre.
Pat McNees compiles several anecdotes about voice in memoir.
Goodreads has a list of popular memoirs.
Reader’s Digest put together a list of 17 Memoirs Everyone Should Read.