Frequently asked questions about published memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Aspiring memoir writers ask me all kinds of questions, like “What’s your favorite?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces?” or “What is a memoir, anyway?” I will answer many of these common questions in groups, over the next month or two. Today’s questions are about published memoirs. Please feel free to add comments, questions or answers of your own.

What is a memoir?

In the old days, before 2000, memoirs were mainly to let people learn about famous people. Since the beginning of the Twenty First Century, definitions have changed. Now, memoirs are well-written stories, often about ordinary people. Published memoirs traverse the spectrum of human experience including Coming of Age, romance, war, family, mental and physical illness, career, religion, care giving, aging, culture clash, and the journey of self-discovery.

What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

Until a few years ago, an “autobiography” was considered to be a historical record of a person’s life, without much effort to find a compelling story line. Such lifeless books are a dying breed. Nowadays, the term autobiography can refer to any first person attempt to communicate authentic human experience, crafted into well-told dramas. In fact, a book with the label “autobiography” may contain as much dramatic tension and character development as a book that calls itself a memoir.

For more on this subject, see my essay titled: Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

What is the difference between a memoir and a novel based on a true story?

Some novels claim they are based on actual events. This assertion does not offer readers much guidance. For all we know, only a thin web of facts links the story to reality, leading to endless speculation about where truth ends and fiction begins. However, if the book is to fulfill the charter of fiction, all scenes must serve the dramatic tension, whether they are true or not.

For example, the novel “Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay was billed as “fiction based on his life,” so Courtenay was free to create any scenes that propelled his story. The book ends in a life and death confrontation between two enemies, a scene filled with dramatic impact, but so slick and coincidental I can’t imagine it happened in real life.

By contrast, memoirs follow facts. Since life situations seldom wrap up with a tidy ending, memoirs tend to be rougher-hewn, sometimes ending on a philosophical note. Kate Braestrup’s powerful book “Here If you Need Me” ends with an analysis of Good and Evil, which flows as a beautiful conclusion to the story.

What is the difference between a memoir and a diary?

The goal of most diaries is to pour words onto paper, without intending it to be read by a stranger. You may not even intend to reread it yourself. By contrast, a memoir is crafted to communicate with strangers. To achieve this goal, the first draft is only the beginning. It may require years to learn the skills and develop the compelling stories.

What is your favorite memoir?

To research memoirs, I have been reading them for several years, and comment on the ones that interested me and which I believe would provide insight to other memoir writers. I have posted annotated list of books, each one offering a window into someone’s world while at the same time providing examples of the way an author translated life into story.

Here is my first list with more than 70 memoirs, annotated with comments.

Here are ten more books with mini-reviews.

It’s hard to say which ones are my favorites. The answer depends on what you are looking for. My favorite memoir of “good versus evil” is Kate Braestrup’s “Here If You Need Me.” My favorite ones driven by the writer’s voice are, “A Girl Named Zippy” and “She Got Up Off the Couch,” both by Haven Kimmel, and “Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr. My favorite for giving me permission to be a nerd is John Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye.” My favorites for insight into the workings of recent history are “Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu, “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer, and “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper. My favorite for overcoming the darkness of an unsupported childhood is “Don’t Call me Mother,” by Linda Joy Myers. My favorite for allowing me to explore the dark side of human experience from the safety of my room are: “Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro, “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold, and “A Temporary Sort of Piece” by Jim McGarrah. My favorite for a year in a motor home is “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion. And an even cleverer transformation of travel into memoir is “Zen and Now” in which author Mark Richardson takes a motorcycle ride along the road originally travelled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” How Zen is that? Each month I find new categories, and new favorites.

“Are memoirs true?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces”?

When James Frey’s memoir “Million Little Pieces,” was selected for Oprah’s book club, his sales skyrocketed. Then Oprah discovered that parts of the book were fiction. Summoning the offender to her television show, she rebuked him in front of millions of viewers. Like an angered parent, she furrowed her brow, tightened her lips, and leaning close said menacingly, “How dare you?” The incident affected our culture so broadly that for more than a year the topic of memoirs almost always provoked a question “How about Oprah and that guy who lied?” Her outburst did more than expose one case of fraud. It raised a much more troubling problem. How can we trust memoir authors when we can’t even prove the accuracy of our own memories? My advice: Speak your own truth, and do your best to surround yourself with others who wish to do the same.

To read my whole essay about truth in memoirs, click here.

3 thoughts on “Frequently asked questions about published memoirs

  1. I’ve written memoir pieces about my childhood. My brother, who is only 18 months younger than I am, remembers events very differently. I’ve realized that each person has a unique perspective. I like your advice. My truth is true for me.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Travelinoma. The “truth” problem prevents us from knowing ourselves. “What if it’s not true” seems like an insurmountable problem, so we give up. But then we miss out on the fun of wondering “what if it IS true?” It’s a much more interesting possibility, and fills endless hours with the craft of storytelling. Along the path towards telling the story, they learn about you, you learn about them, and in the end, everyone grows.


  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that the way I remember things, rightly or wrongly, is what shapes my view of the world, so in that respect, it is Truth. When I learn that my Truth conflicts with established, verifiable facts, I remain open to reevaluating my view of the world. For the purposes of writing, that world view is frozen around my views at a specific time.

    With that said, the longer I grapple with memories to hammer and fit them into a formal memoir, the more complex and rich they become rippling like a sparkling brook through the channels of my mind. They morph before my mind’s eye and it has become difficult to recall just what my world looked like before I began writing.

    Just as in quantum physics where the mere phenomenon of observation causes changes in the matter being observed, the process of writing memoir irretrievably alters memory and our view of life.

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