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The Personal Memoir

Summary:

These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.

Contributors:Kenny Tanemura
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:09:36

Because the personal memoir is more demanding than the personal essay, for both writer and reader, it doesn’t fit into introductory courses as well as the personal essay. An intermediate level course is a good place to introduce the memoir. However, if the instructor takes the time to explain and introduce the memoir form, it can be adapted for introductory courses.

Difference Between the Personal Essay and the Memoir

While the personal essay can be about almost anything, the memoir tends to discuss past events. Memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that the memoir tends to focus more on striking or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in your life right now.

Where the personal essay explores, free from any need to interpret, the memoir interprets, analyzes, and seeks the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The memoir continually asks the following questions:

In this sense, the memoir is heavier than the personal essay, and it mines the past to shed light on the present. The memoir seeks to make sense of an individual life. The questions that are left unanswered in Wole Soyinka’s essay from the personal essay resource, Why do I Fast? are answered in the memoir.

Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs

Moore’s memoir exercise from The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction is useful in both beginning and intermediate courses:

“Make a list of six to ten events or circumstances in your own life, or the lives of those very close to you, that still provoke your curiosity. Mine your own life for the events and circumstances that still raise questions in your mind. Once you have the list (and this list should be private - don’t share it with others - and don’t hold back because you think someone else will be looking), pick one of the questions on the list that you are willing to explore.“

The potential questions Moore asks in this exercise are meant to be answered in the memoir. While the memoir tries to make sense of experience, it also shares something in common with the personal essay - the exploration of the question, and the process of trying to arrive at an answer, is at least as important as the answer or resolution you may arrive at.

Writing the memoir is not a simple Q & A with yourself; rather, the complicated process of trying to seek the answers is what makes the memoir engaging to write, and read. Here is an example from Carlos Fuentes’ How I Started to Write:

What happened to this universal language, Spanish, which after the seventeenth century ceased to be a language of life, creation, dissatisfaction, and personal power and became far too often a language of mourning, sterility, rhetorical applause, and abstract power?

Fuentes is constantly questioning and answering, interpreting and analyzing his experience, trying to make sense of why and how he did what he did in order to become a writer. He seeks answers and tries to make sense of his life by interpreting his own experience, the cultural and political life of his time, the meaning of language and literary influence, and by stepping over imagined nationalist borders.

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