One of the first questions we encounter when we think about writing memoir is what are the rules? In other words – how much can we make up? Can we trust our memory? Writers and teachers of writing debate these questions often. There are as many answers as there are writers and teachers. My personal philosophy is that it is ok to make up details, embellish or fill in information we don't remember. A memoir – as differentiated from autobiography – is a meditation on an aspect of one's life. It requires interpretation. Therefore, the small details need not be factual. However, we do have to write honestly about our lives and we must refine our skills so the writing can communicate effectively.
What is a memoir? The memoirist TELLS the story and MUSES upon it, tries to understand its SIGNIFICANCE in the larger scheme of her or his life. RETROSPECTION is also essential. An ENGAGING VOICE is very important for the reader to care about the writing. (VOICE is like the fingerprint: the sentence rhythms, the images used, the linguistic quirks.) Modern memoirs for the most part try to speak to the reader in a comfortable and INTIMATE manner. The modern memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction: believable DIALOGUE, switching back and forth between SCENE and SUMMARY, controlling the PACE, etc.
Another difference is that most people will write one autobiography but can write more than one memoir.
Another way of looking at memoir is the way one remembers one's life.
Travel writing often has the qualities of memoirs and there are many examples of wonderful travel books.
The difference between memoir and fiction: the author says to the world – this is true, this happened. This has an effect on the reader. When you name something "memoir" you enter into a contract with the reader. To honor that contract all the raw material can only be what you experienced. Imagination is circumscribed by the facts. If for example you conflate several characters to create one, you must acknowledge that in the book. The same if you compress several years into one. Don't abuse the readers trust.
Another characteristic of the memoir is the process of judging or struggling to understand the past. Judgment does not have to be nasty. Neutrality is boring. Self revelation without analysis is boring and embarrassing.
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