“Memoir” Opposed to “My Memoirs”

The most common reply I get from people when I tell them I’ve published a memoir is “aren’t you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?” At which point I have to explain, “no, no, a memoir, singular, I’ve written a memoir. I’m not in my sunset years writing the autobiography of my entire life, known as one’s memoirs (plural).” A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend life, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills.

My favorite example is Robin Romm’s book “The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks,” which is a beautiful and emotional chronicle of the last weeks of her mother’s life as she watched her die of cancer. The opening description of the hospice nurse is exquisite and one of my favorite book openings, period. It’s hard not to notice  how Mary Karr’s memoirs are pretty much broken up into, childhood (The Liar’s Club), adolescence, high school, and early college (Cherry), and young and mid adulthood (Lit).

This is not to say one can’t move through time chronologically, or for that matter experimentally, in a memoir. One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting–my favorite example being “Boys of my Youth” by Joanne Beard. But what we aren’t doing is chronologically recalling an entire life (I did this, and then I did this, and finally here I am old and wise.)

Memoir as a genre has very much come into its own over the past twenty years and is now filled with a vast array of narrative exploration of the true (as true as memory can be) personal account.

One of the latest incarnations is the “Immersion Memoir” where people are seeking out interesting, challenging, odd, or even dangerous experiences, completely immersing themselves in them, and then writing about it. “My Year Living as a Buddhist Nun in Burma” or “My Time Working for Minimum Wage in a Slaughterhouse in Iowa,” might be examples. I suppose if “Supersize Me” was a book it could be considered an “Immersion Memoir.”

Such books include elements of travelogue, documentary script, and deep investigative journalism.

The point being that at it’s best memoir (singular) explores a portion of a life lived in a unique open way, filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel, and as poetically as any great poem.

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