Writing our life story — memoir or autobiography?

Nov 29, 2016

Many of us as we get older feel the urge to capture the story of our lives. This may be a record for the family or a serious creative work. Either way there are early decisions to be made as memoir and autobiography are very different.

Put simply an autobiography tends to be a linear record of the events of our life and requires attention to the accuracy of the memories and the detail of each event while a memoir is more free form and is usually based around a theme or themes that have meaning for us in some way.

It is the recognition and description of these themes that can enable memoir to harness the big issues of life and gain a wider audience.

For example a book like Angela’s Ashes, which was essentially the story of Frank McCourt’s miserable childhood managed to touch many people and became a worldwide best seller.

For the past 18 months I have been both researching memoir generally and writing my own and it has been a fascinating journey so I want to share a little of what I have discovered. I chose memoir for a number of personal reasons and found myself immediately immersed in the nature of memory itself.

Memory is deeply connected to our emotions and I’m sure we have all had the magic moments when a scent in the breeze whisks us into a rapid rewind to past events. Recently I was in an antique shop where there was an
arrangement of candles in old glass dishes. I bent to sniff a lovely mauve one and was overwhelmed by the scent of lilac and memories my Dad’s garden now lost forever in the Christchurch earthquakes. Living in hot climates for so long I have not seen a lilac for years and tears welled at the thought of their gorgeous drooping perfumed flowers in beautiful shades of purple.

This is the moment for a memoirist where there are threads to be followed. This process may not lead anywhere, in this example the lilac bush had long gone before the earthquake but it is in exploring memory we find the deeper
themes for our memoir. The story in the memoir must be coherent in some way rather than just a series of personal moments. Early on we need to realise that a lot of our life events are what I call ho hum moments deeply
meaningful to us but not necessarily to others.

If the story is for the family and friends or you are famous or even just well known publicly in some way this doesn’t matter so much as the audience identifies with you already but if it is a creative work for publication it certainly does. For memoir to succeed the reader must identify with the story, with you as the main character and be drawn into the narrative. One way to do this is with attention to detail so the reader’s imagination can get freed up and start to flow. A vase comes to life with the layers of just enough but never too much description. As we picture the dancing figures on the front then the light shining through the pale green glass we can suddenly see our version of it on our shelf and we are drawn in.

So it is with life events. There are so many personal stories out there but the art of memoir and autobiography is to harness them some way with the bigger picture of human experience or history. With history this does not have to mean that you as the hero have engaged with these events but you may have a story that describes success and resilience despite these events.

There are numerous examples out there of people who have transcended war and great hardship and their stories glow with meaning for us.

We must be the main character in our memoir but not the only one or it becomes a monologue and this may become ho hum writing. One way to avoid this is to use dialogue. Of course we can’t remember exactly what was said and by whom but relevant simplified dialogue moves the story out of the purely personal.

An interesting aspect of writing both autobiography and memoir are the quirks of memory itself. We have all had or heard of the situation where family members all disagree on the details of an event. This hits at the heart of the issue of writing from memory. Our truth may not be someone else’s truth but that’s the fun of it. My way through this is to be truthful and coherent with my own memories and honour those of others where they differ.

Have fun writing your life story however you choose to do it!

Have you undertaken the task of writing your life story? Have you tried to write the story of your family? Share your experience with us.

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