Notes on Memoir Writing

by Kurt Fuchel

Just what is a Memoir? Is it an autobiography? Well, yes,... and no. Autobiographies are usually written by persons of some distinction and achievement who want to get their version of the story down on paper before the biographers get to tell the truth when the subject is no longer around.

Autobiographies are supposed to be "factual", memoirs are more flexible. The story told is in the realm of memory and emotions, both of which look at their world through warped and tinted glasses. In a nutshell, in a memoir events recounted may not have happened exactly as told. A memoir paints an emotional landscape, one which rings true even if the facts are otherwise. A memoir is art.

Memory does not work chronologically, so it is not necessary that a memoir be chronological. Anecdotal pieces, eventually linked with narrative, are more interesting that n linear time frame. We get in touch with the people we write about through our feeelings, and we write about "love affairs now kissed only in memory."

How do we get started? By writing! We need to start with ourselves and see who we truly are. Here are some topics which will get you started:

My life is like...

It was a time when...

I'll never have friends like the ones I had when...

A Safe Place

Before and After

The first person in my family to arrive in the USA

Encounter with Death

Write a letter which will never be sent

Why do I write? What voice will you use? Will you write as a senior citizen about events that happened sixty years ago? Or will you write as a child, in the present tense? This brings home the immediacy, the drama of whatever you are recounting, but be careful: don't betray yourself by using long words and insights which come only after decades of experience.

Will you write in the first person: "I...me...," or the third person: "he,...she..." Will you use a pseudonym so as to distance yourself? Some writers find this easier.

Use metaphors: "Arms as withered and as soft as day old balloons..." Memoirs can be loosely connected, or even unconnected. Place your story in a period: what was going on in the world at the time?

Write to please yourself. What the children want to forget, the grandchildren want to remember. Have fun with your story!

* The material for this note is drawn from a course at SUNY Stony Brook, taught by Rosalind M. Kamholtz, superb and inspiring teacher!






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