What Is a Memoir, Anyway?

Ok, I admit it.  I had no idea what a memoir really was when I decided to write one.  Although I had a read a few, I had never really thought about whether it was fiction or non-fiction.  Come to think about it, when the question was asked at my first writing class, I realized for the first time it was neither.   But what is it?

Is it fiction when I rely on my own memories of past events or stories my parents told me? Their stories must have been true which would make them non-fiction, right? Are the memory gaps I fill in through emotional or historical re-creation fiction?  Unless one has recorded dialogue, in letters, actual recordings, or other forms, all dialogue is recreated based on context, on memory of speech patterns, of a person’s habits.  Is that fiction?  Is a family history non-fiction if there is a certain amount of research involved in learning about faraway places and times past if those who we could have asked are no longer with us?

I never figured out the answer to any of these questions in my first writing class which led me to the next writing class.  My new, and turned out to be wonderful writing teacher suggested I find an article by Professor William Zinsser, “How to Write a Memoir,” in The American Scholar.  Being a conscientious student, I did.

Professor Zinsser wrote that “Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and the family you were born into.”   He taught that you can write your memoir any way you choose because it is a “…transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions….[It is your] remembered truth.”  And I found that to be the key.  There is no right or wrong answer to what my memory is.

Memoir is a genre all its own.  It is neither fiction nor non-fiction but more importantly, it doesn’t matter.  In digging into my past and reliving my memories, I experienced them anew, in a more mature way.  Trying to write about them has not been easy.  At times, it has been emotionally wrenching.  At other times, it has been enlightening.  Most of all, I have tried to be fair to those who have peopled my memories and tried see them in new and gratifying ways.



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