writing autobiographical or personal stories

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The New York Times Book Review had a recent essay in which the writer, herself an author of memoirs about her family, poses an interesting definition of a well-crafted memoir that “involves archival research, hours of taped interviews and a narrative structure that leaves more on the cutting-room floor than on the page.” To me this definition – while it might apply to the memoirs she was discussing – is limiting. Not all memoirs try to recreate family histories, but are attempts for authors to tell their own life stories. And not all life stories are told in nonfiction formats, but can emerge in and inform a writer’s fiction. (Indeed the review essay author had her own personal stories which she classified as “memoirs.”) This debate recalled my earlier post. “Being a writer of personal stories,” which I revisit here.

The last couple posts have focused on writing books with advice for becoming a writer. Some were general and others specific—for young people, for novelists, for those interested in a writing career writers. Despite their varying focus, they all touched on some basics covered in my post becoming a writer, such as identifying as a writer, setting aside time, facing the blank page, writing regularly. The previous post highlighting advice of poet and instructor Colum McCann was specific to young novelist, but much advice is applicable to nonfiction.

A good number of participants in my Writing Workshops are interested in nonfiction, including writing histories, blogs, travel articles, personal essays, and what they would call memoirs. Many are actually relating personal anecdotes, recording autobiographical sketches, or preserving family histories for their children and grandchildren. These works are important projects, but are not necessarily full-length works like autobiographies or memoirs.

Sometimes these two terms are used interchangeably, but although the difference between them is not always clear, they are distinct genres. We’ll discuss the ways they differ, as well as techniques they share with each other and other writing.

Both can be defined as writing one’s life story, but an autobiography is a chronological telling of one’s entire life, while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life. Autobiographies usually include all phases, such as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with lists of accomplishments. They are generally reserved for famous people and public figures.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is considered the earliest example of an American one.  Though Franklin himself referred to it as a “memoir,” and early editions (until 1840) titled as “the Life,” it tells the story of his life and was designed to be a model because of his importance in the independence and formation of the United States.

memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life with a limited timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings and emotions. Marion Roach Smith author of The Memoir Project says, “Memoir is not about what you did. Memoir is about what you did with it.”

Personal anecdotes, autobiographical sketches, and family histories share elements of memoir—they relate personal stories. As such, they are told from the first person narrator, “I.” They can also benefit from fiction techniques, including characterization and show, don’t tell. Memoirs differ in that they usually contain a narrative arc, while the others can be separate pieces or an accumulation of stories.

There are numerous books and articles (in print and online) about recording personal histories, though some focus more on genealogy than anecdotes or memoirs. Like the other posts on becoming a writer, they stress the importance of setting aside time, facing the blank page, writing regularly. Whatever the nonfiction project, the first advice is to just start. Begin capturing your thoughts and memories; in fact, most advise making this a regular habit if not daily practice. It’s not necessary to know what your end product will be or even your focus—you can narrow that later.

As with other genres, the prevailing advice is to write every day. William Zinsser, author of the classic nonfiction writing book, On Writing Well, actually has an exercise he proposed in his 2015 article “How to Write a Memoir”: to record an event or episode, “whatever memory comes calling.” By doing so every day for two months or three months or six months, your subconscious mind will start delivering your past.”

Writing daily may not be possible or desired by everyone, especially people with busy with fulltime jobs, family, or other commitments. You can still work on your writing dreams by setting realistic goals; for instance, the web resource familysearch.org (sponsored by the Mormons who are big on family histories and genealogies), has a 52 Stories project in which people record a story a week for a year.

Whatever your time, keep the dreams of writing about your personal experiences and life stories. They stories are important to you and to your family, and can also be helpful to others, whether as a family history, a personal essay, or a memoir. Recording them is the first step toward being a writer of personal stories. It’s time to get started.

(Resources: Stapinski, NYTimes Book Review; Marion Roach, author of The Memoir Project; William Zinsser on writing a memoir; familysearch.org.)

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