What is a Memoir? (And Why I Wrote One)

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a memoir (not something I do with great regularity–it’s usually my wife who does the telling), I often get the question, “What is a Memoir?” I usually begin my response by saying that it’s an autobiography that isn’t an autobiography, but that only confuses them more. So let’s unpack this properly.

A memoir is a person’s written, first person account of their own life, or, more typically, a portion of their life. A memoir’s focus is usually narrow. Maybe it’s a coming-of-age story that focuses on the author’s youth like The Glass Castle or Growing Up Amish. Maybe it’s an account of the Mormon dating scene in New York or the author’s experiences working undercover for the ATF. Or, as in my case, it’s about dealing with the dual tragedies of death and growing up. Memoir usually picks a theme or an certain perspective and sticks to it. It’s not trying to tell the whole story of a life, only one of its more interesting stories.

To really understand what a memoir is, you’ve got look at that root word, “memory.” A memoir doesn’t report the facts. That’s not to say that a memoir is full of lies, but a memoir is not about what happened so much as how it happened. To the author.

A memoir’s only priority is to share the author’s perspective. Nothing else matters. No research required. Only digging deep and pulling out out thoughts and feelings from the deep recesses of the brain.

And because of that… a memoir may not be all true. Think about it: are your memories factually accurate? Of course not. Chances are, your mother and father and brothers and sisters have different takes on some of the great stories of your life. For a memoirist, it is no different. The only thing a memoir can report on accurately is the memory of the author. What actually happened is known only to God and video cameras.

This is why you’ll sometimes hear memoir described as a cross between fiction and non fiction. In fact, even though memoir is filed under non fiction, it’s pretty much sold and written as fiction. Why? Because, like a novel, a good memoir will have a strong and propulsive narrative with an emphasis on character and plot. An autobiography can get away with presenting a life as a series of events and facts and figures. A memoir has to tell a story.

Of course, there are pitfalls to this. The temptation to exaggerate or even fabricate is great for the memoirist. That’s how you get guys like James Frey who fooled a great many people (including Oprah) with his is-it-true-or-is-it-not memoir, A Million Little Pieces. There’s remembering things a certain way and then there’s saying you served 87 days in jail when you did not.

Having now written a memoir myself, I get why this happens. A memoirist has two equally important priorities: tell the truth and tell a good story. They can occasionally butt heads. Only a very skilled and principled writer can navigate the battle successfully.

So why go there? Why write a memoir? Is it vanity? Lack of imagination?

For me, no. I don’t lack for imagination. I actually find fiction to be quite a bit easier than memoir. I wrote my book for two simple reasons: I knew it was a good story and I was compelled to tell it. Before I even knew if I was capable of writing a book, I knew this was something I had to do. And when you get promptings like that, I think you have to follow them. It usually means there’s somebody out there you can reach or help. I see the writing of my story as a sacred responsibility. One I could not ignore.

I imagine many memoirists probably feel the same way.



  1. Hi Brock – just posted your question and answer on my facebook site. Thought you may want to know. I am a memoir writer – I have so much to say I do it in Poetic Memoir. I have a book also, but never gave a thought to publishing the entire thing. I am also writing a Historical Novel based on a True Story – family related. I am the narrator – it begins in 1893 in Sicily. I have researched those years I haven’t lived for probably more than twenty years. I love the novel/manuscript – it’s like a child you don’t want to let go of. Thought I would say hello, and introduce myself
    Nancy Duci Denofio
    on facebook either Nancy Duci Denofio or Nancy Denofio
    Page Turners Host on BTR on page turners Page Turners on blog talk radio
    a radio show for authors by authors
    Poetry is Life on facebook or seek information on my newest blog
    blognancydenofio.blogspot.com/ on Poetic Memoir etc.



  2. Hi, Nancy. Good to know you! I have to admit that is a first I’ve ever heard of “poetic memoir.” I can’t say I’m a big fan of poetry myself, but it sounds like an interesting project.

    Thanks for reading and sharing.


    1. Went into our local library knowing the system does not have a place for Poetic Memoir, yet I told them a story, which came from a short Poetic Memoir, one I knew they could relate with, and they said they would have to vote to change the system. Brock, with Poetic Memoir you can twist your words from the original manuscript into a condensed version, and read it, as I love to do – I have taught Author Presentation for 15 years and miss it, since you hear mistakes, and you hear the storyteller in Poetic Memoir – and catch many people as they walk by, or stop to listen to you read. I would love to do more with this, since one book is worth the price of many more when you understand the concept. You don’t have to be a poet to write this way. Please, join my blog @ blognancydenofio.blogspot.com/ where I write in a very informal way to my friends about poetic memoir. As a writer, reporter, author, instructor, radio host, and editor of the second series of Poetic Memoir – join me. You and your friends. And I am always looking for GREAT writers for Page Turners on BTR. Sincerely, Nancy


  3. I never thought about the definition of the word, but now I realize that’s what I pictured a memoir to be. In spite of the fact that I have had a hard time reading a draft of your memoir (because of computer screens and such), please believe me when I say I am excited to read it in printed form.


  4. I can absolutely relate to that feeling that drives the memoirist to complete the work.

    I love Your Life As Story… the book helped me understand how memoir is a slice of life (it begins and ends when you decide it does) and how it comes from our memory but also shapes our memory. The author warns that after one writes a memoir, they will remember the memoir version of the story. When I look back on the time in my life I wrote about, I see the scenes from my book.


    1. You’ve articulated something here that I’ve long thought but never put into words… you’re right, to a certain extent you lose the memories you put into memoir. They become the version you create to get the memory across to readers. I think it’s a worthy sacrifice–and one that does result in the expansion of memory so it’s not all bad.

      I’ve never read that book, but it sounds like I should. Thanks, Angie!


        1. Exactly! When you’re trying to communicate to a reader–trying to get them to understand what you understand and feel what you feel–you have to do more than just tell the story. You have to get inside of the story and bring people in with you. That means telling the story differently than were you to just recount it. It’s a huge challenge and it alters perception, but it’s important for a memoirist do it.


  5. This is such a brilliant and inspiring post, especially in my capacity of ghostwriter – helping others write their memoirs. I particularly like the phrase, “A memoirist has two equally important priorities: tell the truth and tell a good story.”
    This is so true and difficult to get across to my clients who sometimes feel like any novelisation of their work is somehow inauthentic. I appreciate their desire to be genuine, especially as most of them are writing only for family and a few friends (who would sniff out any flamming up!). It’s a fine line.
    Brock, your memoir sounds amazing. Let us know when we can feast our eyes!
    I am going to Tweet and Facebook this blogpost. Loved it.


    1. Thanks so much, Marnie. I know my own journey towards understanding what a memoir was and how it worked wasn’t easy. I can’t imagine working with a client on one. Kudos to you for helping people tell their stories.


    2. I am also ghost writing a memoir and having a background as a reporter, those intensive interviews to step into their life, walk in their shoes is probably the basic reason why I love to write for others. I tell them, as I do on my blog, to be honest, truthful and never, never lie. I also tell them years have gone by and it is time to free up your mind, and live without something hanging over you. Then, I get to work – and one interview lasted four hours and begins with one word, drilling them, it’s a simple way to have them reach somewhere they never new existed, or remembered it did. I had to let you know how wonderful it is to write the truth. I too have a memoir which will be out soon, and two Poetic Memoirs, along with being Series Editor for the second series of Poetry is Life, Poetic Memoirs, which I talk about on my blog, very informally. Hope we speak again, I am on facebook, my blog blognancydenofio.blogspot.com/ and more information can be found on the web at dystenium.com on a blog there. I also am a radio host for page turners on BTR and have HVWAG on FB along with Poetry Is Life on FB, and my main FB is Nancy Denofio, along with another more laid back page, Nancy Duci Denofio. Linked in, and Google plus. Keep in touch. Sincerely, Nancy


  6. I’m in the process of writing my first memoir now. Quite the challenge! It’s a bit scary taking that step to broadcast to the world something so personal.



      1. I must admit, that’s one of the concerns. I’m wondering how it will affect a few people that are part of the story. Is it something where I should tell them about it (although I don’t speak or associate with them anymore)? What, if any, are the legal ramifications/requirements? The one that matters most, I already have permission from them.



        1. I don’t think there are any hard answers to those questions, but I do think you have to do whatever you can to protect yourself. I’ve sought some permissions and changed the names of others. I’m not trying to actively offend anyone, but at the same time I have to stay true to my experience. As do you.

          But I do think changing names and details about people is the surest protection.


  7. Hi Brock,
    You said:” I knew it was a good story and I was compelled to tell it. Before I even knew if I was capable of writing a book, I knew this was something I had to do. And when you get promptings like that, I think you have to follow them. It usually means there’s somebody out there you can reach or help. I see the writing of my story as a sacred responsibility. One I could not ignore.”

    Well, that really summed up my own reasons for my project “Driving Home from Boston”, a story about my son’s illness and the importance of support.

    A few years previous to his illness, I would mention “I’m a writer” and the invariable response would be, “so, are you writing a book?” Seems some folks don’t understand that there are all kinds of writing. At the time my work was in entertainment writing, reviews of books, movies, music, TV (and margaritas!) and the occasional op/ed piece, and even rarer bits of fiction. Never had inclination (or confidence, or patience) to consider a book.

    And then, my life was consumed with my son’s diagnosis and all the inherent complications/surgeries/etc – and at some point – like a clear and direct arrow of insight – it hit me that I had to write about this. And I had already been writing about it, on my own blog and other internet outlets that were gracious enough to give me the support and server space. But this new reckoning, this message was specifically saying “a book.”

    And I mentioned this notion to a couple of wise souls who advised me, “Sounds like you’re getting that message from somewhere strong and deep, and you had better listen to it.”

    So, while filled with some anxiety, I have begun the process. I have so many questions and feel like I need some guidance, but at least I’m writing.

    Glad to see that you listened to your promptings and took the plunge. I wish you lots of luck with “Raised by a Dead Man”

    Oh, btw, I followed you here from your comments at Grub Street about memoir writing (Jenna’s article)


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