Memoir

Memoir

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A memoir is a literary
Literature
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

 genre
Genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...

, forming a subclass of autobiography
Autobiography
An autobiography is a book about the life of a person, written by that person.-Origin of the term:...

 – although the terms 'memoir' and 'autobiography' are almost interchangeable. Memoir is autobiographical writing, but not all autobiographical writing follows the criteria for memoir set out below. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist.

The nature of memoirs


Memoirs are structured differently from formal autobiographies which tend to encompass the writer's entire life span, focusing on the development of his or her personality. The chronological scope of a memoir is determined by the work's context and is therefore more focused and flexible than the traditional arc of birth to old age as found in an autobiography.

Memoirs tended to be written by politicians or people in court society, later joined by military leaders and businessmen, and often dealt exclusively with the writer's careers rather than their private life. Historically, memoirs have dealt with public matters, rather than personal. Many older memoirs contain little or no information about the writer, and are almost entirely concerned with other people. Modern expectations have changed this, even for heads of government. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are generally written from the first person point of view.

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal is an American author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist. His third novel, The City and the Pillar , outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American novels to feature unambiguous homosexuality...

, in his own memoir Palimpsest
Palimpsest
A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. The word "palimpsest" comes through Latin palimpsēstus from Ancient Greek παλίμψηστος originally compounded from πάλιν and ψάω literally meaning “scraped...

, gave a personal definition: "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole.

Humorist Will Rogers
Will Rogers
William "Will" Penn Adair Rogers was an American cowboy, comedian, humorist, social commentator, vaudeville performer, film actor, and one of the world's best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s....

 put it a little more pithily: "Memoirs means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do."

Contemporary practices of writing memoirs for recreational, family or therapeutic purposes are sometimes referred to as legacy writing or personal history. Such products may be assisted by professional or amateur genealogists, or by ghostwriter
Ghostwriter
A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person. Celebrities, executives, and political leaders often hire ghostwriters to draft or edit autobiographies, magazine articles, or other written...

s.

Types of memoir


The rhetor Libanius
Libanius
Libanius was a Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric of the Sophist school. During the rise of Christian hegemony in the later Roman Empire, he remained unconverted and regarded himself as a Hellene in religious matters.-Life:...

 (ca. 314 – ca. 394) framed his life memoir as one of his orations, not the public kind, but the literary kind that would be read aloud in the privacy of one's study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 and Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

, that memoirs were like "memos," pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on.

In modern times, memoirs have often been written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish their own account of their public exploits. Nineteenth-century examples include rambles in line with Gore Vidal's definition (see above) such as Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist...

's Walden
Walden
Walden is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau...

or George Borrow
George Borrow
George Henry Borrow was an English author who wrote novels and travelogues based on his own experiences around Europe. Over the course of his wanderings, he developed a close affinity with the Romani people of Europe. They figure prominently in his work...

's Lavengro
Lavengro
Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest is a work by George Borrow, falling somewhere between the genres of memoir and novel, which has long been considered a classic of 19th century English literature. According to the author lav-engro is a Romany word meaning "word master". The historian...

.

Some contemporary women writers have combined the memoir form with historical non-fiction writing. Examples include Jung Chang
Jung Chang
Jung Chang is a Chinese-born British writer now living in London, best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans, selling over 10 million copies worldwide but banned in the People's Republic of China....

's Wild Swans
Wild Swans
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is a family history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in China, by Chinese writer Jung Chang. First published in 1991, Wild Swans contains the biographies of her grandmother and her mother, then finally her own autobiography...

, Heda Margolius Kovaly
Heda Margolius Kovály
Heda Margolius Kovály was a Czech writer.- Early life :She was born Heda Bloch to Jewish parents in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she lived until 1941 when her family was rounded up along with the rest of the city's Jewish population and taken to the Lodz Ghetto in central Poland.-...

's Under a Cruel Star and Helen Epstein
Helen Epstein
Helen Epstein is a writer of memoir, journalism and biography who lives in Massachusetts, United States. She was born November 27, 1947 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, raised in New York City, and graduated from Hunter College High School in 1965.-Life:...

's Where She Came From.

Other professional contemporary writers such as David Sedaris
David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a Grammy Award-nominated American humorist, writer, comedian, bestselling author, and radio contributor....

 and Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Xon Burroughs is an American writer known for his New York Times bestselling memoir Running with Scissors .- Life :...

 have specialized in writing amusing essays in the form of memoirs. To some extent this is an extension of the tradition of newspaper columnist
Columnist
A columnist is a journalist who writes for publication in a series, creating an article that usually offers commentary and opinions. Columns appear in newspapers, magazines and other publications, including blogs....

s' regular accounts of their lives. (Cf. the work of James Thurber
James Thurber
James Grover Thurber was an American author, cartoonist and celebrated wit. Thurber was best known for his cartoons and short stories published in The New Yorker magazine.-Life:...

 which often has a strong memoir-like content).

Memoir collection projects


With the expressed interest of preserving history through the eyes of those who lived it, there are many organizations that work with potential memoirists to bring their work to fruition. The Veterans History Project, for example, compiles the memoirs of those who have served in a branch of the US Military - especially those who have seen active combat. Many public libraries give Memoir Writing classes that are geared towards senior citizens and some autobiographical service companies periodically publish memoir collections featuring clients that participated at no cost.

See also

  • Autobiography
    Autobiography
    An autobiography is a book about the life of a person, written by that person.-Origin of the term:...

  • List of autobiographies
  • Creative nonfiction
    Creative nonfiction
    Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service...

  • Diary
    Diary
    A diary is a record with discrete entries arranged by date reporting on what has happened over the course of a day or other period. A personal diary may include a person's experiences, and/or thoughts or feelings, including comment on current events outside the writer's direct experience. Someone...

  • Fake memoirs
    Fake memoirs
    Fake memoirs form a category of literary forgery in which a wholly or partially fabricated autobiography, memoir or journal of an individual is presented as fact. Often, the purported author of the work also is fabricated...

  • :Category:Memoirists