A Memoir is a Lifestory


It’s important to remember that a memoir is a story, the story of your life. It’s not a memoir (well, not an interesting one) if it’s just a set of facts, even with interpretation. While readers might be interested in facts, they really perk up when they have access to what you thought about the facts, how they affected your life, who you are because of them. In other words, the lifestory.

I’m kind of hitting you over the head with this since I think that often people don’t realize how important personal feelings are in a memoir, beyond the facts. Look at the example below.

An example

Say you start off your memoir with something like:

I was born in 1932 so I was seven when the war broke out. The war was something that was happening to others; around me but not intrusive. Except that sometimes the rationing pinched.

My father, who was just 26 at the outbreak of the war, enlisted immediately and went overseas in late 1940.

Seems okay, no? But what might it look as if you focused on a more personal angle? Read the next example.

Better telling of a lifestory

You say that the rationing ‘pinched.’ What if you told the story underlying that summary statement?

No chocolate!”

“Sugar is rationed, now,” said Mom.

This made no sense to me. Sugar was what Mom put in her tea. What had that to do with chocolate?

“Are the soldiers getting it?” I asked suspiciously.

Mom shrugged. “They might be.”

“Couldn’t they leave some for me? I won’t take much, I promise.”

“Linda Eleanor Birch, the soldiers deserve the best food we can give them! They’re fighting for us.”

This is the first time it came home to me that war was a crisis.

Difference between the two examples

The first example isn’t bad but I think it’s more effectively used for minor things (why Aunt Minnie was there when the big explosion happened).

But, particularly because it is your opening, you want to grab the reader’s interest right off the bat. And showing how rationing affected you in very concrete terms is a more vivid way to start. Often what works is to look at summary statements (rationing pinched) and remember an incident which illustrates it.

But there were other opportunities to flesh out the narrative even in that short excerpt. You say the war was around me but not intrusive. What would that look like? How did you know that it was around?

Similarly, the statement that My father went overseas can be expanded to introduce a more personal feel. How did you feel about your father leaving? What was the day like when he left for overseas? Did your mother cry? Did you? Did you know what it meant?


Of course, you don’t want to simply string a bunch of memories together. The memoir needs background information, a grounding in the when and where of the lifestory, your reflections on what happened, etc. However, slowing down at critical points and remembering in detail what happened will make for richer reading.