Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Memoir Vs. Memoirs


For a long time, the word memoir only existed in the plural.

Picture it: a rich Lord sits around his estate after a long life of plundering and looting, and decides it is time to write his memoirs. He wants to tell all the tales of his life, from being a young lad who aced cricket to marauding the barbarians to his retirement and marriage to a much younger woman.

This is what most of us picture (or some version therein; famous stars, former presidents, you name it) when we hear the word "memoir." But that is a whole other kettle of fish from what memoir is.


Writing about one's whole life is writing one's memoirs, plural. It's more akin to autobiography, in which you tell all about what happened, often with intense detail, the personal version of the kind of research a biographer would do if they were writing a life about you. Memoirs tend to be more informal than autobiography, but still have that life-encompassing feel. Most of the people who write them are well-known - that's how and why others would buy an entire book about their entire life, or multiple books about their entire life.

Memoir, on the other hand, the currently hot trend in writing and the topic of this blog, is focused on a particular time in one's life, or a theme or thread. Instead of the whole kit and caboodle, if Sir Lord Knight up there decided he wanted to write about recovering from his marauding ways, for instance, that would be a memoir. Successful memoirs show a turn in your life, from worse to better, typically.
They show conflict and resolution - like novels do, because they are modeled, form-wise, more after novels than autobiographies.

Even dictionaries still struggle to get it straight. But just reading Martin Amis' Experience versus Lit by Mary Karr will show you the difference. Both are personal, but Amis follows the arc of his whole life, with key stories highlighted Karr instead focuses on one aspect, one era, of her life. The former are more like memoirs, the latter, a memoir.


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