Memoir often gets confused with autobiography and biography. Memoir is not a linear autobiography recounting a fully lived life, but rather a selected aspect of the writer’s life, written from his or her point of view. Rather than simply recounting an incident or memory from her life, the memoirist both tells the story and tries to make meaning out of it.
What happened to me back then and how did I react? What insight do I have now looking back upon that experience, that time in my life? Self-reflection and insight are key to the writing of memoir.
The memoir presupposes that there is a certain unity to human experience, that we all share similar hopes, dreams and desires. When a writer recounts a memory about herself, she is talking about all of us to some degree. The essence of memoir is to participate in the writer’s struggle to achieve some understanding of the events, traumas, and triumphs of her personal recollection.
The memoirist recounts the incidents in her life to the best of her recollection. For the reader to believe the memoirist there has to be an element of emotional truth. In her article, “With Memoirs, Consider the Source,” published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cynthia Bass is correct when she writers, “No one remembers anything perfectly.” “Just try to remember, word for word, a conversation you had at lunch yesterday; it’s impossible.” I agree with Bass that it is unlikely that a person will remember the exact words from a conversation perfectly. However, I do trust that the memoirist will attempt to reconstruct the emotional truth of that conversation accurately.
The job of writing memoir is to find one’s truth, not to determine the facts of what happened—that is history, a testimony, perhaps even an interesting tale. I entitled my book on memoir and memory Unreliable Truth because the author’s exact memory may not be factually accurate but what is important is what the author makes of her memory.
The beauty of writing memoir is that the writer begins to understand his or her life more fully. You cannot remain unaffected by reliving events that happened perhaps decades ago. Memoir offers the writer, and at times the reader, catharsis, new insights, rediscovery, and healing. When we tell our story and tell it well, in a way that reflects the universal experience of being human, we become a part of each other.
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