Writing a life: memoir or autobiography?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

(Note: This article began as a review of Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan, and over time turned into a longread about the intricate relationship between memoir and autobiography. If you are a writer wondering how your memoir will work, or a reader, wondering about how to make better sense of these two types of life writing, consider the creative way Judy Beil Vaughan bridged the divide.)

Strawberry Roan by Judy Beil Vaughan seemed perfectly suited to my reading preferences. I love stories in which companion animals (birds, dogs, horses) have an important impact. And I’m intrigued by stories of the American Southwest. (For another article I wrote about a memoir in which riding horseback played an important role, Click Here. )

Sure enough, the author’s connection with horses, training them, loving them, admiring them, grieving for them, provided compelling stories. And her explorations of the rugged beauty through remote settings delivered the full immersion in the majesty and mystery of her relationship to nature. In fact, she awakened feelings more majestic than I have ever experienced directly, but which matched my vicarious experience within the pages of the fabulous West with the Night by Beryl Markham about growing up in the mid-century profusion of wildlife in Africa.

Because of her style of storytelling and the intensity of each chapter (which in some cases read like short stories in their own right), she took me deep into her confidence, sharing a lifetime of formative, powerful experiences.

I soon found out that Judy Beil Vaughan, a retired neurologist, did not limit her book to simple stories about the wonder of a girl and her horse. In an early demonstration of her mastery over horses, a passive-aggressive incident with a boy she wanted to impress offered the first example of the transparent honesty of her memoir.

Many emotional forces intersected with her love for horses. Perhaps most significantly, she had to modify her feelings to fit in with her family business. When a buyer came to claim one of her beloved horses, she had to balance business with love.

Her emotions around horses were also woven with her father’s needs. He was driven to be around horses, to train and sell them, and to become a serious contender in the world of showing and breeding. Judy accepted those needs as an important aspect of her own journey. Even after she followed her own dreams as a medical doctor, she always returned to participate in his.

So in addition to a story about a girl and her horse, it was a story about a girl and her father. I have read several memoirs in which this desire to know and understand a father is the central theme of the story. If Judy Beil Vaughan had written such a tightly focused memoir, that never-ending pressure to please and understand him would have taken center stage. But Strawberry Roan includes many stories which have nothing to do with that relationship.

Some of the most poignant scenes are those in which she felt driven to serve others, first volunteering as a worker in the civil rights movement, and then serving as a doctor in a state hospital, a setting which required tremendous self-sacrifice. I felt honored to accompany her on these journeys.

Through her deep introspection, her honesty about her feelings, and her passion to craft each chapter or story as a powerful offering to the reader, Strawberry Roan fulfilled my expectations of a memoir. And more.

It’s that “and more” that pushed me to deepen my understanding of the sometimes-subtle differences between autobiography and memoir, a distinction that continues to plague memoir writers struggling to decide how much to keep into their growing manuscripts.

Memoir purists would probably disagree with Judy Beil Vaughan’s choice to keep pushing into the next legs of her life. Some of the themes were big enough to justify a separate book. Do the multiple themes in Strawberry Roan cross over the line into that category often maligned by literary writing teachers, the dreaded “autobiography”, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s a question which almost every memoir writer must sort out at some point during the development of their own growing interest in memoirs. The choices Judy Beil Vaughan made in composing her life stories offer a fascinating study in exactly this question.

How much to include in one memoir?

Any memoir teacher (including me) would encourage you to focus your story on one theme or, as I like to think of it, one “mission.” Say in a “Coming of Age” the author’s “mission” is to grow up, and so most such books might start to wrap up around say 18 years  old. Or the book might be about Launching, in which the “mission” is to transition from home out into the world. Such a book might end somewhere say in the character’s twenties. Or it might be a grieving memoir, which would end when the person has successfully come to terms with their loss.

If you try to write about your whole life it’s said by almost everyone that this makes it an autobiography – this is a big no-no. “Don’t write an autobiography” is often touted as one of the central rules of memoir writing.

A memoir, as it’s understood and taught in the literary world, limits itself to one central aspect of the author’s life. I have read hundreds of satisfying books that follow this rule. As a reader, I am the grateful beneficiary of the author’s extra work to strip away extraneous stuff and lead me on a specific journey through a specific aspect of life.

Such memoirs became bestsellers for a good reason. Each book focuses on a digestible part of the author’s life and takes the reader on a well-structured journey through that experience In the wise words of William Zinsser, the sage of good memoir writing,:

“I’ll read almost anybody’s memoir. For me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and unexpectedness of life…What gives them their power is the narrowness of their focus…

Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well. (The quote was offered to me by fellow memoir teacher Wendy Bancroft, in personal correspondence.)

That’s the reason I love reading book length memoirs. By allowing me to look through that window, they have opened me up to an infinite source of wisdom and empathy about the people with whom I share this planet.

I also believe in the healing power that writing such a book offers its author. To develop such a focused story you must bring your attention back over and over to identify and condense the meaning of that portion of your life. In that reflective process, there is a tremendous opportunity to make peace with your own past.

If you don’t obey the rule, is it still a memoir?

However, Judy Beil Vaughan chose not to limit herself by this standard, stripped down focus. As she had done when facing so many other challenges in her life, (relationships, medical school, the civil rights movement, religion, alcoholism, public service) she did not let the definition stop her from telling the story she felt she needed to tell.

By breaking out of the definition, though, she didn’t sacrifice story values. Her powerful chapters provide focused story-power, with strong emotional stakes.

And her self-disclosure and introspective honesty satisfy one of my main requirements for a memoir. It should be an open, authentic journey into the author’s quest for self understanding. Being able to see yourself in such an open and honest light offers psychological rewards, both for writers and readers.

In this regard Strawberry Roan exceeded my expectations. She opened herself with unrestrained honesty about the raw fragility of being an actual human being. Within the context of her story, her missteps are not bad things. They are human things. And they demonstrate one of the most valuable purposes of the Memoir Revolution. Within the context of the stories of our lives, our flaws become steps toward our true, higher selves. Memoirs provide all of us with an opportunity to use the “bad” parts of our lives, the parts we wish had never happened, as fuel for the journey to become better.

By her honesty, her emotional depth, the profound linkage throughout the book of emotional pressures that led to heroic responses, no way does this fall into the category of autobiography. Because in fact, the thing that makes that word pejorative is its connotation that the story is devoid of deep psychological principles. In the end, I would have to come up with a new hybrid category for this book, perhaps “memoir-plus”?

Mercy for the hard-working memoir writer

So Strawberry Roan is a book length memoir. Or is it a book of overlapping, interwoven short stories? Or is it an autobiography with heart? I’m not sure. What I do know is that it is an incredible life achievement for the author, and reading it was an incredible privilege for me.

Her hybrid model gives her the creative license to show many facets of her life and actually gives me a broader understanding of her character than I might get from a whole book that is centered just on one theme.

Sure, I could imagine a book with a tighter focus, for example one on growing up in the Southwest with the grandeur of nature and a horse-obsessed father. A second memoir might be about her journey as a neurologist through the public sector. But frankly, I am not convinced that either of those books would have been as captivating or shown the extent and depth of her multi-dimensional life as the one she actually did write.

What I am sure of is that if she’d chosen to write two books the task would have taken her additional years of writing, editing, and revising. And therein lies the problem with the narrowly-focused memoir. To tell multiple stories, you must write multiple books. That’s what tireless, bestseller authors sometimes do.

To learn how Frank McCourt’s life turned out after Angela’s Ashes, I read his two sequels, Tis and Teacher Man. And Harry Bernstein, in his 90s, did something similar with his three memoirs, Invisible Wall, Dream and Golden Willow. Others who did the same tireless service to the genre include Sue William Silverman, Mary Karr, and Dani Shapiro to name a few more.

But they’ve devoted their lives to this effort to retell what has come before. This daunting dedication is not for everyone.

Teasing apart the focused story is hard

When you first look back at your life through the lens of memories, you only see a disorganized heap of memories, with some factoids jutting out at random angles. No story exists yet, except perhaps specialized, and simplistic ones like “I had kids and a career” or some variation on that.

For the vast majority of people who come to my memoir classes, the idea of separating out one specific focal point for their stories provokes the maddening question: “Out of all the events in my life, how exactly do I slice out the material for a well-crafted memoir?”

If you could flash forward to the end of your memoir writing project, this could be a glorious question. By teasing apart all this material, and finding the coherent parts, your completed memoir will be about your self-development through that particular challenge.

However, finding those coherent parts takes time, sometimes years, especially for those of us who come to the craft of storytelling late in life. For us, we must learn the art of story writing at the same time as we are learning the introspective journey of our own lives.

So I always encourage writers to postpone these questions of thematic purity. Early in the process, simply grab a memory, write it, and place it in chronological order.

Over time, your evolving manuscript will suggest connections that coalesce into segments. Some will turn into chapters. Some may be large enough to cross several chapters. Others might suggest an entire book. Finding these units of your story takes time and effort. The wisdom of your life is gradually revealed in the stories which you will find through this process.

Ode to the hardworking memoir writer

Every published memoir you read offers an example of a person who has turned some focused psychologically compelling part of the author’s life into a good book. Each author spent all these thousands of hours, reviewing, savoring, confessing the past, and above all, reconstructing memories to find the ones that will make a good story.

Strawberry Roan is such a book, in this case, by a retired neurologist, who spent her life in two intense, passionate pursuits, medicine and horseback riding. Then, in retirement she revisited her decades of experience and turned those earlier experiences into a book. In truth, this effort has been a third massive chapter in her life. I am filled with awe at the effort she had to exert in order to provide me with these good stories.

Actually, memoir authors like Judy Beil Vaughan (or you) are doubly heroic. First, they have to find themselves as characters in their story. And then they go on a second journey to become writers. Two heroes in one. The character in the story becomes a hero, in the author’s eyes, and the author becomes a hero in mine.

Th stories in Strawberry Roan stretch the simple one-theme ideal of a memoir. And yet the book achieved (and in some cases exceeded) my expectations of the compelling storyline and involvement in the inner journey of its author.

Judy Beil Vaughan has found a style in which she has incorporated the best of both. She has strong, emotionally compelling storylines in each story. And then by stacking the stories, she has managed to guide me through her entire life.

I am madly in love with our culture’s newfound ability to let us get to know each other’s lives so deeply and completely (a cultural trend I celebrate in my book Memoir Revolution). Each memoir I’ve read leads me through some aspect of the author’s life. My heart overflows with gratitude for having been given that front row seat. In fact, through the magic of vicarious experience, I’ve to some extent experienced it myself.

Thank you Judy Beil Vaughan for going through all this work to generously share your life. Your hard work has made it possible for me to sit down with your book, and spend a few invigorating hours, living and riding in the American Southwest, becoming a doctor, and wrestling with various demons. At the end, I close the book, to face my own life, fortified with hope in the journey of being human.

Writing Prompt

List a few major events or components of your life you might attempt to turn into short stories. For example:

Creativity in whatever form (visual, dance, music, writing, etc)
Living in a group
Relationships, romance, etc.
Attempt to adapt to some historical shift
Need to adapt to a different culture (immigration, ex-pat, etc.)
Addiction, incarceration, brush with the law
Grieving and loss
Midlife and beyond

Write a paragraph about each of these (or others that are relevant to you). Visualize how you would expand each one into a short story. Could you imagine a theme strong enough to carry a whole book?


Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.


One thought on “Writing a life: memoir or autobiography?

  1. Thank you Jerry for your review of my memoir, Strawberry Roan. Your choice to make a long-form argument for a new sub-genre, Memoir-Plus made me glow. I felt so understood after other editors had suggested narrowing the focus of my material. I fought for memoir-plus before you gave it a name.

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