What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?

One pretty much tells the details of a life. The other one can really be any way an author chooses to talk about their life.

Why do people choose to write a memoir?

As I mentioned yesterday, after a lifetime of reading fiction, I expanded by reading non fiction. I fell in love with the memoir essay genre. I think this was the genre that I was born to write because it suits my natural style as a writer.

When I blogged yesterday, it was about a question that I did have as I was reading memoirs: does the memoirist have the right to tell the story of another? The post was generic, but in the comments I mentioned that I was thinking of writing an essay type book about my relationship with my Mother.

This garnered comments about the “Why”.

Why did I want to tell these stories?

Did I want to intentionally hurt my Mother by revealing how I feel? How I interpreted things?

Was I just trying to get her to apologize?

Was I trying to shame her?

So let’s get general first:

When someone writes a memoir, what is their intention?

We can think about Educated or Glass Castle or Untamed, which are three fairly popular memoir/essay type books.

When the authors of these books talk about their lives, and directly or indirectly, the people in them- do we think that these authors are intentionally setting out to hurt the people they talk about?

Or are they just telling a story?

Is it better to keep the story locked inside of oneself?

Or is it better to put everything out on the table?

Let’s branch out: If someone is the victim of a crime or sexual/physical abuse: Do they have the right to tell their story?

Or is it not their story to tell?

What if someone is a victim of emotional abuse?

Whose story is it to tell?

Monica Lewinsky- was that a story we wanted her point of view on?

Ok…

We are going to jump into fiction for a moment: Do you ever read a fiction book and immediately wonder how much of the story is real? Do researchers spend time and energy trying to figure out who each fictional character is “supposed to be”?

Realistically, every time we tell a story, we risk exposing something or someone…Is that better because it’s “fiction” and therefore we can deny it?

Ok-

now we are jumping back to reality:

Do we not write something because we are afraid of hurting a relationship? Should I choose to not write memoir/essay because it will hurt my Mother? Will it damage the relationship?

Is there a relationship if the two parties are not truthful with one another?

Is there a relationship if one person tries to be dominant or control the other?

Does a relationship need to be 50/50 in order to survive?

I was asked how I would feel if my daughter was to tell me things that I did wrong, how would I feel?

Well, my daughter has most definitely told me ways in which I have failed her as a Mother.

And I admit that these things, hearing them said out loud, hurt.

However…

I listened to her with an open mind and open heart because I know that our relationship going forward must be based on truth and our perceptions of it. There is always hurt before we heal.

If I want to have an adult relationship with my adult daughter I must be aware that she is going to tell me things that I don’t want to hear. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need to hear them.

If your child is asking you to listen to them, understand their point of view, as parents, isn’t it our job to listen?

Doesn’t it behoove us to try to amend our behavior that is obviously toxic to that relationship?

When any two people are in any type of relationship, aren’t we supposed to listen to one another? Aren’t we supposed to work to make something better?

Ok- I totally digressed…

Let’s get back to the original hypothesis:

Should people write memoirs?

Do you think that the intention of memoirists is to shame people in their lives- a little “Ha ha- I got you” moment?

Or do you think they just want to tell their story?

I know from yesterday that there are many who would go as far as to censure themselves in the hope of not hurting someone…but…should we?

Let’s get personal:

What do we think of memoir/essays?

Discuss:

78 thoughts on “To Memoir or Not to Memoir

  1. I am writing a jail memoir because I want to tell my story and I feel like it is something people would want to read. it’s easier, though, because any stories I tell that are less than flattering are about anonymous jail people not famly.

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  2. From the perspective of a reader who chooses to read a memoir: I don’t go into it expecting or openly looking for the author to be writing a hurtful, tell-all, revenge book. I assume that what they are writing about is an event/ongoing events that have impacted their lives deeply. This may be in both positive and negative ways. Unless they have lived in a bubble, there will be details about others and their influence on the author. That seems to be the point. How the author chooses to present those details, facts, memories is I suppose, up to them, but also as a reader I can make my own assumptions about what is presented and likewise the true intent of the author doing the writing.

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    1. I like the way you phrased it, and upon reflection, it’s what I get out of a memoir as well. I don’t have a problem, mainly, with people telling their sides of stories. I don’t think it’s a hatchet job. To be fair, in the book I talked about yesterday, there was really only one story I was iffy about…but I totally understood why she chose to discuss it. I guess I really admire when someone can admit a painful truth about them self, and move on. But after reading comments yesterday I thought this was worth a more in depth look

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  3. I have read memoirs and come away with better understandings of the writer because of their point of view of certain situations. I have also come away with bad feelings about the people in their lives. Would I feel betrayed if one or both of my children wrote something that pointed out all of the things I did wrong, most certainly. Everyday life and the ups and downs of childrearing should not be fair game or really all that interesting.

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    1. Bit if it affected who you are as a person? I appreciate it when I read something and I realize I’m not alone. Makes me feel a little better about myself. And maybe someone learns what not to do. I’m not sure

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If I wanted to write about my upbringing, and be truthful about it, I know it would hurt a lot of people. Some of those people I no longer have a relationship with but because of the ones I do, I wouldn’t write it. But that’s me. For some, the purge is necessary and it’s not for me to reconcile how they go about it.

    For the record, I won’t read a tell all book. And the ones involving a deceased person I find to be distasteful.

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      1. All very fine lines. I mean, throw in Roman a clef…where’s the spreadsheet of what is and isn’t acceptable? Then add, does anyone want to read aboit someone’s happy childhood, either fictionally or non fictionally?

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  5. A memoir is a historical account written from personal knowledge. It doesn’t really matter why or how it was written. It’s someone’s account of an experience. If you are in an accident and the police interview five people at the scene. Each person will have a slightly different account of what happened. Everyone has a different perspective. The angle of vision, their own experiences before seeing the accident play into how they perceive it, and as the officer writes down each account there will be some similarities and always some differences. Even to the color if the car. So if this happens at an accident site then imagine how points of views differ in human relationships.

    I talk with my kids all the time. They both love me, both see me slightly differently. My musically creative son recognizes my musical skills whereas my other son just notes that I used to be in a rock band. The son who plays guitar calls me constantly about music. The son who heads up a youth poetry network discusses poetry and literature with me and we relate more on that level. One son sees me as more difficult than the other. Yet, I see that son as more moody or perhaps more difficult than his sibling. So maybe our differences create the problems sometimes. I love both children the same, both have very different personalities and I would do anything for either of them. But the one who has more in common with my interests is usually easier to relate to. Thus we have less squabbles. It’s human nature. And yet, the one who is a parent totally gets those challenges as his children grow up. So we can talk about that.

    So…. if each wrote a memoir about their mother it would be slightly similar and also very different. Because they are different. One was a mellow teen, the other a cranky one. One was an athlete and an artist, and the other a theater kid and a rock musician. So as adults they see me differently too. And during my cancer treatments both were there for me, each in different ways. They see different sides of me because they are different.

    So it doesn’t matter why you write a memoir about your mom. Just do it. Someone else would have a different point of view because none of us are only one dimensional. But your relationship is yours. Her view will be different, but you have a right to express how you see it and from your point of view.

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    1. Thank you, both for the encouragement and the thoughtful explanation. Telling my story doesn’t mean I’m trying to get revenge or be purposely mean. It really just means that I have a story to tell, and I think I can tell it well. My perception of events is important, because it has shaped everything I’ve done. 💗

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  6. I read something just yesterday that kind of stuck out and it seems to fit this. It was that people write for 3 different reasons. One was to make money. Another was because they have a story that MUST get out. Unfortunately I don’t remember the third reason listed and I can’t find it now, but the idea still applies. People need to tell a story for a variety of reasons and writing a memoir really isn’t any different. If you feel the need to write a memoir, it is going to be about why YOU need to write one and not why, in general, other people need to write one. Some may need the feeling of getting back at someone or to shame someone. Some may need to just get the story of themselves out of themselves and somewhere else. Maybe as a way of healing and moving past it. Maybe as a way of sharing an experience that others may identify with. Maybe even as a way to shine a light on others in a way that doesn’t make them look good. All those things can be true and still not apply to why you would find the need to write your own. As for you mother and you writing, it isn’t about her. Yes, she may be a focus of your story, but it is YOUR story. Your experience. You have every right to share how you experienced your story and what you feel about it. If you feel the need to write it and publish it, then you do that. She very well may not like it, even to the point where it breaks your relationship, but that is part of the decision you have to make when you make the choice to write something so real and personal.

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    1. Thank you! I think like you do on this subject. I questioned yesterday because there one particular story in the memoir that I thought age shouldn’t have shared, but in the whole, I think all participants should be able to write how something made them feel. But you and I also share some of the same angst about our familial relationships. I don’t consider it as being mean…I think of it as being real. But I’m definitely still thinking this one out

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      1. We do have many similar issues with family, so I can understand your dilemma. It would be so much easier for me having cut all ties with my family than for you when they are still in your life.

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  7. I see autobiographies as more objective writings while memoirs are more subjective; including emotional aspects of a life. Some will use it as a “get back at you” writing, but I’m not sensing that is your motivation. My oldest daughter has also told me many ways we, as parents, failed when she was younger. Yes, it hurt because most of us are doing the best we can. I can’t remember if your mom is still alive or not. If so, I would encourage you to have a conversation (not confrontation) with her about some of the issues you feel the need to include. It would be beneficial to get her side so you could make an informed assessment of the way you’re feeling. It may change your perspective, it may not. I had a difficult time relating to my mom until she shared with me some of her back story. It was very enlightening and I came away with a different perspective on her actions and some of the things I assumed about her. Either way, if you are feeling the urge to write a memoir about you and your mom, do it as a way to heal. Your story would probably be beneficial to someone else going through the same feelings and challenges. xoxo

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    1. My intent is not to get back at my mother. It’s simply to tell my story. I have tried talking to my mother, but my mother has one lane. If I say when you did X I felt Y she will reply that she was right and it’s too bad I felt that way. She once said, with pride, “you’ve always been too scared to oppose me”…so yeah…I’m talked out

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      1. Then I believe you need to do what you think will heal your heart. I can feel your angst and am sorry. I’m sure your story would be a blessing to someone else who is struggling with the same experience. xoxox

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  8. I heard from a famous author at a writer’s conference I attended 25 years ago that everyone’s first book is about their mother. Also, once that is done you can move on to other subjects. It’s a cathartic experience. At the time, I was working on a mid-grade fiction manuscript based on my own life, growing up with a bipolar mom who’d be up all night vacuuming and then in bed for a month at a time.

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      1. Yes, I did. I submitted it to publishers, but it never was published. Now I’m thankful it didn’t for the sake of my mom. Yes, it was a hard childhood, but mental illness wasn’t her fault. I’m sure she’d feel terrible about the book.

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      2. Definitely. I have the old files, probably unreadable by now by my computer. But I saved hard copies. My mom is in assisted living and I don’t think she’d know about it, or bother to read it if it was published.

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  9. I had a good relationship with my mother, but if I hadn’t, I would write about it. Writing might clarify things for me and perhaps get rid of resentment or anger. You may be quite different from me, but I would not publish my memoir until after my mother’s death. On the other hand, was your mother’s statement a challenge for opposition? Was she taunting you to fight with her? If so, write it out as clearly as you can. Her eyes might be as closed as her ears, but you will have made your points and delivered them in a medium you are comfortable with. She might wad it up and throw it away, or she might learn something from it. Be prepared for consequences.

    I really ache for you that she can’t show you love and understanding. Despite your childhood, you learned how to mother your daughter. Your heart is involved. Maybe your mother’s heart has shriveled up. If all the love has dried up, she would have no reason to live, nor would anyone else want her to stay alive. I pray you will find peace and that your love will be rewarded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mother is a my way or the highway person, and has great difficulty hearing the ideas and opinions of others. I have difficulty having conversations with her about almost everything. It’s almost as if she wants to provoke fights. And honestly, I only began to realize the issues when I had my daughter…it was then I realized how screwed up I was. My parenting rule of thumb is to ask myself what my mother would do, and then I deviate about 140 degrees

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  10. I think there’s a difference between writing it and publishing it. I wrote mine in order to figure out something about myself and my life. If I publish it, it will be because I hope it can reach other people, who might relate to it, or find it helpful. Regarding one’s family – in my experience, they never read anything I write. I’ve tried. Seriously – if your memoir arrives at the point where you forgive your mother, I expect she won’t mind too much. I’ve had to deal with my children telling me where I went wrong. They feel better for being heard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually have forgiven her, which is why I think I should write about it at this point, if that makes any sense. And your pint about being heard is an excellent one…we all want to be heard…and I think i want to write it because she never listened to me

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  11. I will try to stick to why would anyone want to write a memoir. I think most of us want to pass down our stories, and the stories we were told of our parents and grandparents. My paternal grandparents came from small Norwegian prairie settlements and survived the depression years. The stories shouldn’t be forgotten. My maternal grandparents are different, Guido was born in 1901 and his father was taken when he was young to be a soldier, not voluntarily. My Baba’s parents were one of the first settling families in Manitoba.
    I think we all have stories and by writing a memoir we hope that our children and grandchildren will know our stories and they survive us.

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  12. When my dad congratulated me on the way I brought the kids up I was tempted to tell him I’d learned all my parenting skills from him. As long as I did the opposite to what he had done I was pretty sure I was on the right track. But I didn’t, because by then I’d realised he didn’t mean to do what he did.

    We may have had similar childhoods. Sounds like we might not have let it go.

    However, I’m not going to write a memoir or an autobiography as I’m not prepared to be truthful about it, it’s my business, and it would annoy my sister. She has never done anything to me to warrant me upsetting her. When I write anything that verges on memoir I enjoy the discussion then throw it away.

    Read Larkin and have a nice cup of tea.

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48419/this-be-the-verse

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    1. Though honestly, I think I have gotten over it because I’m not afraid of her any more, if that makes sense. I feel bad for her that her wanting to be right and her continuing to say that she was a great mother have stoped us from having an actual,adult mother/daughter relationship.

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      1. Yes, it’s depressing when they still see only one way. What always amazes me is how my cousins think my mum and dad were amazing. Though to be honest, I feel that way about most of my aunts and uncles. Complicated, isn’t it?

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  13. I really enjoyed reading this and struggle with the concept myself of what to share and what not to share. It’s difficult because sometimes I do portray others in a bad light which is never my intention, but I feel the need to genuinely talk about the real things happening in my life. It helps that I write everything anonymously.

    My husband and I got in a fight recently because he said I never talk about how I feel. He said he has to read my blog along with hundreds of strangers to know how I feel. It was a real slap in the face. Perhaps he is right. Thinking and writing about things seems so much easier than having conversations with people I know. Is that wrong? It’s hard to know sometimes especially if you were brought up to not talk about such things.

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    1. I don’t think you ever intentionally put someone in a bad light. You tell the story. That’s a gift. But yeah…sometimes it’s easier Tom open up to strangers because we aren’t afraid of them not living us anymore. I get it. 💗

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  14. I enjoy writing memoir pieces and also use many parts of my own life in fiction. I believe that people who write memoir or who heavily use personal memories in their fiction are attempting to work through issues in their lives OR are attempting to relive those parts of their past.

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  15. Last year I read Crazy Brave, a memoir by Joy Harjo, our Poet Laureate. I think she found a good balance in telling her (hard) story without totally tearing down the people that made it a hard story. I listened to a webinar later in which she said it took her 10 (or was it 14?) years to get the whole story down on paper because of the difficulty of sharing those less than pleasant times. The author makes the decision of how to tell their story, hopefully keeping the future consequences for themselves and their family in mind. There is no right or wrong way to tell something so personal. The reader must also recognize that it is a memoir; it is the author’s MEMORIES of a portion of his or her life.

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  16. I’ve read over 60 memoirs, and I wrote a memoir myself, so obviously, I think people have the right to write memoirs. I started writing mine because it was something that felt I needed to write. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise because it was so hard to write.

    When I really interrogated my own memories and judgements, I realized my relationships weren’t exactly what I thought they were. Maybe I’d started out with a “ha ha got you” intention, but I ended up with a much more nuanced view of my parents and childhood.

    Something that really helped me a lot was the work of Mary Karr. She teaches memoir at Syracuse University and wrote a book called The Art of Memoir. She addresses a lot of the questions you have, and if you’re considering writing a memoir, I highly recommend it.

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  17. I’ve read over 60 memoirs, and I’ve written one myself. Obviously, I think people have the right to write memoirs. I wrote mine because I felt like it was something that I needed to do. I wouldn’t have finished it otherwise, it was way too difficult.

    Throughout the process, when I really reflected on my memories and judgements, my perspective changed a lot. I might’ve started out with a, “ha ha, I got you” intention, but I ended up with a much more nuanced view of my parents and childhood.

    The work of Mary Karr helped me a lot. She teaches memoir at Syracuse University and wrote a book called The Art of Memoir. In it, she addresses a lot of the questions that you have. If you’re considering writing your own memoir, I highly recommend it.

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  18. If you wrote a memoir, I would definitely read it! I think people do have the right to write them, and that it all boils down to their attitude of why they are writing it. Writing can be very healing, a way of therapy to express your emotions, does that mean that every word you write should be published? No. But when you are not writing out of vengeance then I think it is fine to write and that you very well could be helping others who have dealt with similar issues. You may help them get to the healing part that you found and that can be a wonderful thing. Helping others is the reasons stories should be told, not for hurting others.

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  19. Well, I’ve only ever read one or two memoirs. I commented the other day, was that yesterday…anyway, how I feel about people writing other people’s stories. However, if it is part of “your” story and is not intended to harm, shame, etc. someone; and, is honest, yet gentle in the telling. Maybe. Hmmm. I guess the thing that concerns me about these types of accounts, is that they may do more harm than good. I don’t know. A reflection for me. Be well, LA.

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  20. I always feel as if you already know what I’m going to say, but I say it anyway. Everyone has the right to write whatever they want, as long as they can deal with the consequences; that includes memoir. If you can’t deal with your mom not wanting to hear what you have to say about her parenting, then you know…maybe journal, instead.

    To answer something else you’d asked…memoir is (supposed to be) focused on one theme, but an autobiography can be about the person’s entire life. That’s why Educated is about her family’s religious principles on education and her subsequently attaining a terminal degree at one of the most prestigious universities. I’m sure a bunch of other stuff happened in her life, but memoir meant we only heard about that which pertained to being educated (in some way).

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    1. Thank you for the more clarified definition…I’m just entering this realm. You know, as I wrote this I thought about you…I almost emailed to ask your opinion of stuff. Let’s put it this way…I’m not afraid of what my mother will say. I just don’t know if some stories are more hers to tell or mine. But when I went over my notes, I saw that my stories are my interpretations of what she said, so I’m good with it. There isn’t anything that I’m writing about that I haven’t said to my mother. But generically…I thought this was an interesting topic to toss around

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      1. Email me anytime! And yes…I usually focus on my perspective of what happened and try to veer away from criticism. So, like in Westover’s novel, it was clear the father was bat-sh*t, but she showed it rather than said it or criticized.

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  21. “If your child is asking you to listen to them, understand their point of view, as parents, isn’t it our job to listen?” YES! And I think this applies to anyone you want to have a relationship with, but it goes both ways. I can’t even begin to answer all of your questions in this post though…but I like your train of thought and how each question dug deeper LA. Nice job!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Many years ago I happened to be in ‘Waterstones’ bookshop in Oxford when Monica Lewinsky walked in with her entourage, she’d just written her version of that sordid episode and sat down at a table for her book signing…………….if you want my opinion, Bill’s abusing and discarding of this teenage internee was absolutely disgusting.

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  23. More from my mom, who is a lot like yours. She says she doesn’t understand why I do things the way I do, and not her way. Kind of like your, I’d imagine. My reply is basically ditto and after that she usually tries to explain why she does some of the what I think of as silly and often unnecessary things she does. It’s almost always because she was “raised that way.”

    After being around their grandma, my kids know how I was raised and why I tell them quite often when I need to ask them something “nosy” or want to to remind them “just one more time” about something “I’m sorry to sound like Grandma but…”

    I have also told all of them, Mom and my kids, that just because that’s the way you were raised doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it the same way. I will listen to all of them, and usually they will listen to me, once or twice when they want to offer an explanation. Beyond that, though, if I don’t agree with it I don’t even try to understand it but just do my best to try to accept that’s who they are and they don’t have to change for me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hadn’t thought about it before but that facet of your mom’s behavior is probably more crazy-making than my mom’s consistently old-fashioned way of looking at things. I guess that makes my mom more predictable than yours, which I hadn’t thought of as a blessing till now, realizing how much harder it is to deal with someone who is unpredictable.

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