by Diana Raab, Ph.D.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
~ Maya Angelou
Both memoir and autobiography are written in the first person. However, the difference between them is that memoir is about a slice of life, whereas autobiography is about an entire life. Typically, autobiographies are written by public figures, actors, politicians, scientists, etc., whereas memoirs are usually written by people such as you and me. Because a memoir is about slice of life, it needs to have a focus or theme. The range of themes varies and can include illness, loss, love or spiritual awakenings.
William Zinsser, the author of Inventing the Truth, describes memoir as a narrowing of “the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance.”
Even though the subject of the memoir is you, a successful memoir must always be driven by an event or circumstance that has changed your life in either a positive or negative way. As you narrow your lens to a specific life event, be sure to choose a vivid experience. It should be something noteworthy or pivotal; something that was life-changing and resulted in transformation or a sense of illumination about something.
A memoir can be written about any period in your life as long as the experience or memory is worth exploration. When telling the story of your experience, you should discuss how you dealt with it, what lessons you learned and how it affected you. Incorporating exploration and reflection make a memoir compelling to read and also help to pull the reader into the story and hold them there.
The word memoir itself has its roots in memory. Therefore, without memory, you cannot write a memoir. Most memoirists relate a memory of their childhood to their present selves. They try to explore how a memory of a lived experience has helped shaped who they are and made them the person they have become.
When considering an idea or focus for your memoir, remember that perfect childhoods are difficult to write about. There’s a well-known adage which says if you had a normal childhood, you cannot be a writer. Tumultuous childhoods offer much to write about. They can be transformative for both the writer and the reader.
[box type=”info” align=”aligncenter” ]Believe it or not, finding the focus for your memoir is one of the most difficult tasks about writing a memoir. [/box]
Here are some ideas on how to find focus in your memoir:
1- If you keep a journal (and you should), flip through it and see if there are subjects that you often write about. Those might be clues to the focus of your memoir.
2- Make a list of four incidents from your past, especially your childhood, which are memorable, riveting or important to you.
3- Pick one of the incidents and write about it from beginning to end. Go back and read what you wrote and add your reflections and thoughts about the experience from your present perspective. What did you learn from it? What scars did you take away from it? How might you have done things differently?
4- Consider what occupies your mind. What do you think about most often? What are your obsessions? What stories about your past haunt you?
5- Keep in mind that the memoir’s focus should offer a universal truth that resonates with your readers, and they should learn from your experience.
6- Read a lot of memoirs to see what other writers choose as their focus.