Definitions of Terms

by Nynke Passi


“Old People Dancing,” Vivinfrance’s blog


MEMOIR vs. AUTOBIOGRAPHY: As a literary genre, a memoir (from the French mémoire from the Latin memoria, meaning ‘memory’ or ‘reminiscence’) forms a subclass of autobiography—although today the terms ‘memoir’ and ‘autobiography’ are almost interchangeable. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist. Memoirs may appear much less structured and less encompassing than formal autobiographical works as they are usually about part of a life rather than the chronological telling of a life from childhood to adulthood/old age. Usually they explore a certain period, certain experience, a certain trip, or a certain theme. A memoir can draw upon many sources: ancestry, family stories, flashes and images, scenes of life experience in narrative form that read almost like fiction, memories of any kind, description of an era or a place, quotations, philosophy, ideas, feelings, symbols and metaphors, fragments of letters and journals, etc. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are generally written from the first person point of view. Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Memoir is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one’s life than about the outcome of the life as a whole; it explores subjective point of view and experience, not just objective facts. In that, it even comes close to poetry, for it can be very imagistic in nature and have the structure of a mosaic, where little pieces (flashes of story, anecdote, image, information, symbol) together form a larger, more meaningful whole.


TYPES OF MEMOIRS: Traditionally, memoirs dealt with public rather than personal matters and many older memoirs contain little or no information about the writer, being almost entirely concerned with other people. Memoirs were often written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish an account of their public exploits. At other times they were written to record a particular way of life (for example Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, describing life at the Heian court in Japan about 1,000 years ago) or even to communicate gossip. Some types of memoirs were written as notes on a certain subject. This last type of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome that memoirs were like “memos,” pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing that can be used as a memory aid to create a more finished document later on.


Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

Modern and contemporary memoirs invariably are deeply personal accounts of an author’s life experience. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the genre of the literary memoir rose to acclaim and distinction with writers such as Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) and Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life). At this same time, there was a veritable tidal wave of personal memoirs written by first generation Americans, who had grown up in foreign cultures and whose writing explored both ancestral roots and/or what it felt like to be an immigrant. Good examples are Jung Chang’s Wild Swans about three generations of Chinese women making sense of the Chinese cultural revolution and coming to America, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which combines factual with fictional material, telling not only the author’s story, but also the (somewhat reconstructed and imagined) story of her family members.


Today, journey memoirs are tremendously in vogue. Journey memoirs describe the experience of traveling and/or living in a foreign country for a certain period of time. Perfect examples are the bestsellers Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert about a year-long personal quest to Italy, India and Indonesia, and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, the documentation of the author’s efforts to build schools for especially girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban.

Mark Twain was an early source of inspiration for the humorous memoir. Contemporary writers like Bill Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid), David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked) and Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) have specialized in writing amusing essays in the form of memoirs. To some extent this is an extension of the tradition of newspaper columnists’ regular accounts of their lives.


A very important category of memoir is the eyewitness account of history by onlookers to major events or particular eras. Slave narratives (e.g. the memoirs of Frederick Douglass) fall into this category, as do the Holocaust memoirs and journals, such as the diary of Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum’s journals and letters, and the works of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.


Anne Frank, diary page

Graphic memoirs, also called graphic novel or graphic narrative and pioneered in the ‘70s, mix the media of writing with visual arts. Early graphic memoirists were Justin Green (“Binky Brown” stories), the Japanese manga artist Keiji Nakazawa (Ore Wa Mita, or I Saw It about the Hiroshima bombings), and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor).

The last form of memoir that should be mentioned is the private memoir written strictly for recreational, family or therapeutic purposes—as a pas-time or for personal healing, not for publication. The very fact that writing one’s memoir now is such a common occupation says a lot about the popularity of the genre today.


Graphic Memoir: Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis