Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir by Louise DeSalvo

August 25, 2010

I’ve so often been asked to define memoir, that I decided, a few years ago, to write down my ideas about this oft-misunderstood form.  Here, then, are my thoughts on the subject.

1. Memoir is not autobiography. Autobiography, strictly speaking, is your life written by yourself instead of by a biographer. And, when you pen your own biography, you do what the biographer does with a subject: you try to be objective, you collect the data (letters, diaries, journals, random notes), you interview people who knew you. And, usually, when you write autobiography, you write a full account of your life, birth to the present time. Autobiography, also, tends to deal with the external life – your life in the world, rather with your internal life – your memories, your hopes, your dreams, your desires.

But when you write memoir, you aren’t the biographer of your own life. You are a writer in the act of recording what you remember. And you can choose a small portion of your life to write about: yourself as an adolescent or an aging person. Or you can choose a theme: how you dealt with the death of your father, and ground it in the idea of how mourning is elided in our culture. Or you can write about a significant person: your complex relationship to your mother. Memoir often zeroes in on something small in a life – a year, a significant event, a shift in the way one lives one’s life, and plumbs its meanings; it does not need to traverse great temporal distances (though it can). This is why you can write one memoir, and then another, and another.

2. Autobiography is very often structured with first things first, last things last. But memoir can start anywhere: in the present moment; in the past; in the middle. And this is both the joy and the challenge of writing memoir, that its narrative can be structured so that it comes at the reader as narratives do in life: you find out that the person you just met used to live in Idaho; then you learn she was born in Kansas; then you learn that she hated her father but loved her mother; then you learn that she just started a love affair.

In this sense, the narrative structure of memoir is more realistic (rooted in the real world) than the beginning-to-present structure of autobiography. Memoir is often structured by way of associations. Its time frame is often loopy, as one thought or event or image leads to another, which leads to another. In this way, memoir is, I think, more like poetry than like fiction (though fiction, of course, can also be structured in this way), and more like the way people reveal themselves in conversation.

3. Memoir, as a form, is often misunderstood because readers think that the memoir simply describes events the memoirist has experienced, and that these experiences are immediately available to the writer. Instead, memoir reports the writer’s memory of what has been experienced, which might not be precisely what occurred. That is, if you write down that you remember sitting on a hard stone step waiting for your mother after a day when you were in first grade, it’s not your job (nor the job of a fact checker), to find that step and determine whether it was, in fact, hard. If you remember that the step was hard, in memoir, it was a hard step. And that might say more about your psychic state at the time than about the step. Memoir reveals the psyche of the writer and the writer’s emotional state by what the writer remembers, and by how the writer describes what is remembered. When a memoirist prefaces the telling of an event with the words “I remember,” s/he does not mean, “This is the way it was.” S/he means, “This is how I remember it was.”

4. Memoir, therefore, takes as its subject what the writer remembers, but also how the writer comes to remember what s/he writes about. Memoirists understand that we do not know the story of our past until we begin to write about it. The memories, in memoir, are not held, entire, in the consciousness of the writer before the work is penned. Instead, by writing a snippet of memory, the memoirist unlocks a past, piece by piece, bit by bit. Some of what is unearthed is shadowy; some, clear. Memoir, then, describes how we remember – how remembering one moment in our lives opens up an entire episode, how that memory unlocks another, as Proust’s tasting of the petite madeleine unlocks that writer’s past.

5. Readers often seem to think that memoirs are about what “really” happened. The memoirist’s job is not to write what really happened because the memoirist knows that this is an impossible task. Instead, the memoirist’s job is to tell the reader her or his version of events.

Although the memoirist should never deceive the reader and write falsehoods deliberately, and introduce events that never happened – this breaks the contract with the reader – the memoirist’s job is to write what he or she remembers, and it is the memoirist’s job, too, to tell the reader whether the memory is clear, or cloudy, or complete, or partial, and perhaps even if others remember the events differently. While the autobiographer’s job is to check the facts, and to check recollections against those of other people, the memoirist’s job is to write her or his version of what happened.

This is why memoir is a far more complex form than autobiography. Autobiography presumes (falsely) that there is verifiable truth in writing a life. Memoir knows that this can’t be, and that our versions of events always differ from other people’s. Memoir is unsettling, both to write and to read, because it is a literary form that demonstrates how partial and flawed our understanding is of our own life.

6. Memoir is about not only what we remember, but also about how we remember. It is about the process of remembering. Memoir is not writing what we know before we start writing. Memoir is about discovering what we didn’t know, or about discovering what we didn’t know about what we knew. The reader learns not only what happened to the memoirist, but also how the memoirist discovered through the act of introspection – what she or he learned about the past.

7. Memoir is not only about the process of remembering what happened to us; memoir is also about what we wish had happened, what we wish had not happened, and also about dreams, daydreams, and desire. The memoirist’s job is to reveal the internal life – that of the writer, but also (to the degree that this is ever possible) that of the other players in the writer’s life.

This is not easy. We may think we know ourselves, but we soon discover that the “I” is most difficult to capture on the page. Most memoirist I know move very slowly into delineating the self, and they find this work difficult. They discover, too, that those who are most familiar to us – our parents, say – are also thorny subjects, for it takes many revisions to make these people comprehensible to readers.

This is perhaps why I have discovered that memoir requires numerous revisions. It takes time, and considerable rewriting, to get closer and closer to the delineation of the self, and our subjects, to peel off the outer layers of meaning to find the core of experience. In writing memoir, we must be willing to learn more about ourselves and our subjects, and to move into a more complex understanding. In writing memoir, we must be willing to put ourselves into the place of all of the people in our lives so that we can understand who they are, and how they came to be this way. Writing memoir can make us more empathic.

8. Memoir is also about the stories, even the lies, we tell others about our lives that we know are exaggerations. In writing memoir, we can write, “This is not the way it happened, but this is the way I tell the story of what happened when people ask me.” But the memoirist must never write lies or exaggerations without letting the reader know. This reveals much about our internal lives, and exposes how we sometimes create a fictive self, or sometimes present a facade to hide behind. Memoir examines how and why we do this.

9. Memoir deals, too, with alternative realities to the life we have lived. Memoir can speculate on the life we might have lived had our mothers not been depressed, if our fathers hadn’t left us, if our husbands hadn’t been adulterous. When the memoirist writes, not only what happened, but what might have happened, she or he helps a reader understand that all of our lives might have unfolded differently. Memoir is about the contingency of our lives.

10. Memoir is about how we make a coherent narrative from the disconnected and imperfect fragments of the life that we remember. Memoir finds the repetitions, the patterns, the recurrent images in life. (Note that memoir “finds” them; the memoirist does not invent them: the fact that there were fires that occurred throughout the memoirist’s life; or that there was, always, a sense of homelessness rooted in exile or displacement.)

11. Memoir contextualizes the life of the memoirist. At its best, memoir goes beyond the singular experience of the memoirist, and it looks at the reasons – in history, in culture, in class, in race, in gender, in physiology – for the path the life has taken. Memoir, deals, too, with how choice and chance have figured in our lives.

12. The memoirist can – indeed, must – acknowledge the on-goingness of life in the memoir. Memoir must show the reader that our life’s meaning is continually in process and never tidy and resolved. Although memoirists bring their works to artistic resolutions, the form of the memoir is always open-ended because the writer moves both to understanding and to an appreciation that there is much more still to learn. Memoir, then, is a paean to the lack of resolution in most of our lives. Memoir shows us that this is the way life is, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the cycle of uncertainty and resolution that seems to be the core experience of how we understand our lives.


15 Responses to “Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. Erika Bermudez Says:

    This was very informative for me. When reading memoirs, I often find myself becoming very emotional. I’ve been writing poetry, short stories and songs for quite sometime and I’ve always wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know how or where to start. I didn’t know there was a difference between an autobiography and a memoir.

    I guess what stood out to me the most was the fact that memoirs are simply accounts of what one remembers about significant peroids in their life. That’s what makes them so intriging. In reality people remember what they want to remember and different people remember different situation or even the same situation differentlt, and that’s what make memoirs unique. People very rarely remember things chronologically and the fact that memoirs do not have to be in any type of order makes the story the memoirist is telling more relatable to the reader.

  2. […] Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir I think you’ll like this insight from writer, editor, professor and, yes, memoir writer Louise DeSalvo posted on the Writingalife’s Blog. She provides a perspective on the memoir genre, distinguishing it from autobiography. Her message, essentially, is that a memoir is what the writer remembers. She then digs deeper into the form to help aspiring memoir writers appreciate both the freedoms and obligations of the genre. Here’s a sentence from her twelfth point that reflects her take on memoir: “Memoir must show the reader that our life’s meaning is continually in process and never tidy and resolved.” […]

  3. Bianca Cartagena Says:

    I remember on the first day of Writing the Memoir Workshop, we discussed the differences between a memoir and an autobiography. Although the differences seemed clear at first, there are a lot of factors that separate the two from each other. As the semester went on, the differences became clearer and I now understand the characteristics of both.

    As DeSalvo writes in this blog, I too believe that memoir is a far more complex form than autobiography. There are many reasons as to why I feel this way, but the main reason is that memoir deals with the emotional side to life. I love how DeSalvo explains autobiography as the external life and memoir as the internal life. I couldn’t have explained it better myself and I think that’s the best way to explain the difference between the two forms.

    I appreciate that memoir can be based on a small portion of one’s life and revolved around a theme or central themes. This is beautiful to me because the amount of memoirs is unlimited. Where a memoirist chooses to begin and end, and what to write about is completely and freely up to the memoirist. I love how while writing the memories down, the memories find the writer. The writing leads the writer to a place that can’t be predicted, but is waiting to be explored.

  4. marmora1992 Says:

    “Memoir, then, describes how we remember—how remembering one moment in our lives opens up an entire episode…”. While reading this sentence, I felt a sense of relief. As a beginner in memoir writing, I always worry about narrating the action and the consequences that follow rather than the history of remembering such memory. For some reason I didn’t think that such a detail will serve any significance in my memoir. But as I read this blog, I am beginning to take note that memoir is a significant type of writing. Unlike any other form of writing, memoir does not only focus on the “what” but rather it is interested in acknowledging the “how”. The process of remembering matters as much as the memory itself.

    One of my favorite lines in the blog is, “Memoir is not only about the process of remembering what happened to us; memoir is also about what we wish had happened, what we wish had not happened, and also about dreams, daydreams, and desire”. I totally love the idea that memoir offers you, as its writer, a special place to write about what you wished had happened. In a sense, memoir becomes the inner personal voice that each and every one of us hears almost all the time. Through memoir writing, the voice is transformed into a form of writing. The memoir works as a support system. It supports the process of remembering, the memory and what might have the memorist wished to happen. I enjoyed the insightful blog and is looking forward to more.

  5. sabrinall Says:

    This post interesting because it is clear cut and distinct. In my college career, I have taken an autobiography class and a memoir workshop. In both classes I was and am prompted write a memoir. This post has helped distinguish the clear line that separates the both. One would assume that, in the autobiography class, I would have studied the art of the genre, but I didn’t. I was given an anthology with exerts from memoirs, told to read them and then write my own memoir. Coming into my memoir workshop, the only idea I had about the genre was that is a part of your life and not the order of events from birth to death. Even if “memoir” definition is searched for online, it is defined as an autobiography. With that said, I appreciate this post and the clear distinction it creates.

  6. Melissa Hroncich Says:

    It was quite interesting to read your blog on “Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir”. Currently, I am teaching my 8th grade students on how to write a short memoir. Even though they are in middle school, I am determined to teach the basic elements of this genre. I found one idea presented in your blog quite compelling. You made it clear that a memoir is about discovering what we didn’t know, or about discovering what we didn’t know about what we knew. In other words, the memoirst learns about him/herself as they write about the memory regarding an imporant event or significant person. This is something I want to model to my students as I continue to teach them how to write an effective memoir. However, this information is also a great assistance to me as I am writing for my memoir writing class. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  7. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    This blog post is necessary for any memoir writer! I appreciate the contrast you make between the memoir and autobiography. Many people tend to mistake them for one another. The importance of memoir is the writer’s experience; how they remember the events that took place and shape their life. Memoirs can be short and sweet, or long and interconnected. The importance of how we remember is essential, as opposed to what we remember. In the words of Edi Giunta, “it’s not the why, it’s the how”.

    Writing memoir pieces throughout this semester will gradually increase my ability to connect and weave the moments of my life together. I will most definitely keep this blog in mind while doing so. I especially will keep number 10 in mind: “Memoir is about how we make a coherent narrative from the disconnected and imperfect fragments of the life that we remember.” I find that I am able to write memoir pieces with ease, yet I am struggling to find the connections within my writing. Thank you for clarifying and helping me understand more about picking up the pieces.

  8. Hazel Santana Says:

    I had never written a memoir or taken a memoir class before this semester in college. I go to New Jersey City University and I’m finishing a memoir class with Edvige Guinta, your friend and colleague. I have learned so much from this class. I feel like my writing has been liberated and enhanced. I have read your entire book “Writing as a Way of Healing,” along with some of your blogs, and you have also enriched my understanding of creative writing.

    Everything that you wrote in this blog, I have tried to incorporate little by little into my writing. I must admit that at first, it was challenging. I was always used to writing formal essays to professors that had nothing to do with my personal life. Reading your blogs, and taking this course have led me to understand what exactly is a memoir. I have learned that a memoir is very different from autobiography, that it can go back and forth in time, that memoir is inconclusive, that it is not as easy to write as one may think. I have learned that, like you said, memoir is not about “what really happened”, but rather how you tell your version of the events.

    I also agree that writing memoir is process of remembering that unlocks the past, piece by piece. As I am finishing up my final memoir for Professor Guinta’s course, I find myself remembering new things about my past, that were unclear before. I can also look back now, and realize how these experiences have shaped my life.

    Thank you for your dedication in giving us, apprentice writers, tips to improve our writings.


  9. Da'Von C. Says:

    I have always been fond of writing. I’ve kept journals and diaries all my life. Most of my work was sparked by an experience or emotion that was so signifcant that I needed to capture it forever on paper. When going back and reading some of those works they have the ingredients to be developed into great memoirs. After reading this blog and review my notes from my memoir class there is such a strong connection and similarity to the discussions we’ve had about the memoir and your blog. I look forward to developing myself as a writer especially a writer of my own memoir(s) in the future.

  10. I only recently started writing memoirs. Both you and my teacher say that one can write about any moment of their life, but every time I write it seems like I go to dark memories of my life. What if I did this or remember when this person died. It is hard for me to find good memories that I think are worth writing about. I’m hoping this is the just the beginning stages and I can tell the happy stories I know I have in me. I guess they are just not ready to come out. Because of your blog I have a better understanding of what it is to write a memoir. Now it’s time for me to tell my story. Everyone got one, even me.

  11. Mahneerah Griffin Says:

    I loved this post because for a while I’ve always confused memoir and autobiographies. I figured they were both about someone’s life. Little did I know that they are two completely different forms of writing. I can identify with being a memoirist because I’ve been writing in journals since I was seven years old. Whatever I’m feeling or if I had a secret that I didn’t want anyone to know I’d write it down. It was never in chronological order but more in “emotional order”. It’s nice to see that your memories and feeling doesn’t have to be in order with memoir. Reading this has me very excited about my memoir class!

  12. After reading this, I realize that memoir writing has come to me at such a critical time in my life; a point where I am investing so much time and energy into creating the best version of me. My feelings of memoir writing up until this piece have been mixed. I have been excited about exploring parts of myself I have never exposed, but at the same time, have been feeling fear about whether or not to write about the darker parts of my story. Not only do I feel encouraged to do so, but in a weird way, feel that reading this gave me permission to do so, in a gentle voice that says “it’s ok”. I guess in that way, memoir writing won’t be about writing about darker times, but instead, shining light on boxes locked away deep inside.

  13. Sandy Mendez Says:

    The rules of memoir are flexible, in a sense that we can write our experiences throughout life without outsiders denying it. Memoirs are a fairly new genre and the guidelines are foggy; there are bound to be mistakes. My professor Edvige Giunta, explained in one of her published works she remembered a photo being take by her brother (if I recall correctly) and after time had past she realized she remembered the wrong person. She added that at the time what she remembered was true to her therefore was not misleading her readers at all. I suppose this can happen to any memoir writer. The rules of writing a memoir are flexible in this way and as long as we as writers are truthful we are true memoir writers.

  14. nattie101 Says:

    I have always had memories that I felt were precious and deserved to be written down. I am very big on preserving my family history. I have jotted down stories that have been told to me. However, I have always held back out of fear.

    “Memoirists understand that we do not know the story of our past until we begin to write about it.” I think this line relates to me very much. As a requirement for Professor Giuntas class, we must keep a process journal. I started writing about my fears and what it is that keeps me from not relating the entire story. I have found that I do not understand my past until I write about. In many ways I think that the events of the past have to simmer and process. In many ways being able to understand the past has reshaped both the present and past. While writing I was very afraid that the things I remember were incorrect. I often argue with my grandmother who seems to remember things differently than myself. This piece really cleared up the fact that it is okay to simply rely on my memory. I suppose there is truth and lies in memoir writing that way.

    I don’t have to “fact check” anything. This is a world built on what I can and can’t remember. I think this piece is very informative. Thank you very much for clearing up the distinction between and autobiography and a memoir. I think that I will be able to write clearly without holding back out of fear.

  15. Christian Zambrano Says:

    Reading this piece made me realize that writing the memoir isn’t a task but a privilege. This class affords me the opportunity to dive deep within myself and ask the questions that I refused to ask and answer them through my writing. Although this is a task that is easier said then done, I feel that when I start to write that it is a safe place and I am able to write as if I am the only one that will ever read it. Defining what the memoir is unconsciously tells us that we can tell our stories from whatever point in our lives we believe the story should be told from.

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