Some years ago, I read an article in an AARP publication about writing a memoir. The takeaway was that the author thought everyone should write a memoir and that if you found it interesting, chances were that others would find it interesting too. I’m not certain that is always true, but decided to give it a try anyway. Some 45,000 words later, I am still working on it.
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder whether it is rightly a memoir or if it is an autobiography.
The short definition of memoir is this: 1. A historical (I was taught it is “an historical,” but I guess things change) account or biography written from a personal knowledge or special sources. 2. An essay on a learned subject.
So that would seem to say that I could write a memoir about my husband or about how the United States was created. And indeed, this is the example that was given, “an important memoir on Carboniferous crustacea.” This is not really the intuition I had about what a memoir is.
So then I looked up autobiography: an account of a person’s life written by that person. So it seems that a memoir can be an autobiography, but an autobiography does not necessarily have to be a memoir.
The AARP article, in encouraging everyone to write a memoir, did mention (if I remember correctly, and I may not) that it needn’t be read by other people to be of value. I think that was a polite way of saying that not everyone is going to be able to write an entertaining memoir. As a writer, I hope that everything I write (even this) is entertaining. Yes, I know, I flatter myself.
What I wonder is how do you know when a memoir is finished? Where do you end it? Do you decide in advance only to write up to a certain point in your life? Or do you keep adding chapters as your life evolves? And if so, when do you stop doing that?
I have this idea that I might like (like being a relative term, publishing anything makes me more nervous than I care to think about) to publish my memoir someday. To do that, I would have to decide that it was complete, finished, and as final as I could make it. But a part of me, that niggling perfectionist somewhat OCD part of me thinks that there is no way it could ever actually be finished. Except of course, on the day I die. Then someone would have to publish it posthumously for me and I don’t think that is likely to happen. And then what would they do? Would they write at the end of it: “She died. So there won’t be any more chapters. This is it. Sorry.”
I’m sure that if I ever do publish it, my sister will have a thing or two to say about some of the chapters. But I do have a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning about the vagaries of the human memory.
I’ve been writing about the things that have happened to me and what I learned from them, how they have changed me, and how they have affected my entire life. Good things are in there and a few bad things as well. Decisions and choices made and just being swept along by circumstance all receive their due. I haven’t read any memoirs (I probably should just so I’d have an idea what a good one looks like), but I imagine they are all like that.
I could call my story an autobiography because it is certainly an account of my life written by me. But somehow “memoir” sounds more appropriate.