What A Memoir Is Really About (It’s Not What You Think!)

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting memoirist and writing teacher, Marion Roach Smith, at a writing conference I attended. She not only spoke at the event, but she also sat at my table the entire time.

She’s a very successful memoirist, author, speaker and teacher, and I learned a ton from hearing her speak and spending three days at a table with her.

And one of the biggest things I learned from her is the true definition of memoir. 

It was so interesting to me, too, because up ’til that point, I just always assumed memoir was supposed to be about me and my life, which is why I never attempted to write it. I didn’t think there was anything for me to write about. My life wasn’t exciting or super inspiring or anything I thought anyone would care about.

But then she defined memoir for us, and I sat up and took note. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I did have plenty of fodder for a memoir and that maybe it was a genre I would eventually write in.

Problem is, most people who write memoir have no idea what a memoir is really supposed to be about. So they just write an episodic narrative about their life or something that happened to them, from start to finish. 

And that couldn’t be more wrong or further from the definition of memoir.

Just like writing fiction (novels and screenplays), a memoir is based on craft and on implementing specific elements that keep it from being an episodic tale of a person’s life. No matter how crazy, interesting, fucked up or inspiring someone’s life may be.

A memoir is NOT an autobiography/biography. That is a totally different genre. And that is the only genre where it’s acceptable to write about your life from start to finish.

So, what, then, is the definition of memoir? 

Marion just wrote a new blog post yesterday that gave the definition in the clearest way I’ve ever seen her talk about it. She even clarified it from the definition she gave back at the writing conference I saw her at.

This, my friend, is the actual definition of memoir: “Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through.” 

Memoir is about TRANSFORMATION. It’s about THE LESSON you learned. It is NOT about you or your life.

Now, of course, you’re going to use yourself and your life as an illustration for the lesson and transformation, but writing a memoir is NOT about you. 

Marion even has an amazing algorithm to help you make sure your memoir meets this definition. Her algorithm is: 

A memoir is about “x” as illustrated by “y” to be told in a “z.”

Huh? What does that even mean?

Here’s an example… Something I know because of something I’ve been through is that if you want to get over your biggest, scariest fears in life, you must face them head-on. And I learned this lesson by getting a dog of my own to help me get over my life-long fear of dogs.

So using Marion’s algorithm, here’s what my memoir would look like: It’s a memoir about “getting over your biggest, scariest fears in life by facing them head-on” (aka “X”) as illustrated by “me getting a dog of my own to overcome my life-long fear of dogs” (aka “Y”) to be told in a book (aka “Z”). 

Do you see the difference?? 

A memoir is NOT ABOUT YOU! But it is about a specific lesson you learned that you’ll use yourself and your life to illustrate and make your point. 

I edit a lot of memoirs in my Developmental Editing business, and this is the #1 problem I see. These writers have written their life story, from start to finish, and while it might be interesting or inspiring, there’s no real, specific lesson or message in any of it. 

They literally just write the day-to-day occurrences of what happened to them during a particular time in their life where they overcame something.

And that’s not a memoir. (Sorry to burst your bubble.) 

If you write memoir or want to write memoir, I highly recommend you read Marion’s article about what memoir is and isn’t.

>> READ “WHAT IS MEMOIR?” BY MARION ROACH SMITH HERE: https://marionroach.com/2019/02/what-is-memoir-3

Don’t fall into the trap most wannabe memoirsts fall into. Learn the definition and the craft of memoir. 

Dream life or bust,


2 Replies to “What A Memoir Is Really About (It’s Not What You Think!)”

  1. Sorry, no. You’re wrong. Memoirs are not about the lesson you learned, either. It would be pretty boring — and oh-so trite — if all memoirs ended with a lesson learned. Life is not that neat and tidy. And if a memoir takes experience and ties it up in a neat bow, then the the writer is not doing her job. Good memoir shows the human mind and spirit processing experience, trying to make sense of things, trying to be self-aware, going deep beyond comfort level. All that can not be translated to a simple slogan. “And then I learned the meaning of life…”

    1. @Sam The most successful memoirs are about exactly that–what you now know after something you’ve been through. The best ones do it in a way where you’re so caught up in the story and the experience that you’re not even noticing the message/lesson being presented to you.

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