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What Is a Memoir? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:30 Memoirs Versus Autobiographies
  • 1:29 Stories to Tell
  • 2:42 A Moveable Feast
  • 3:18 Running With Scissors
  • 3:58 The Year Of Magical Thinking
  • 5:12 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

It takes a lot of courage to write a memoir: to reveal personal aspects about one's private life. In this lesson, we will take a look at what makes a story a memoir and examine a few of the most popular memoirs of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Definition

Memoirs are factual stories about someone's life. 'Memoir' is from the French word mémoire, which means 'reminiscence' or 'memory.' They are a part of the nonfiction literary genre and are usually told in the first person. We might expect the information the author provides in a memoir to be factual, but that doesn't mean the memoirist won't occasionally embellish the truth to tell a more interesting story.

Memoirs vs. Autobiographies

Memoirs are typically classified as a subgenre of the autobiography. The main difference is that a memoir is more focused. An autobiography typically spans a person's entire life and contains intricate details like the writer's family history and childhood. A memoir, on the other hand, is much more centralized. It's a story about a time in someone's life or a major event that occurred, or maybe it focuses on a special place that the writer liked to visit during the summer.

Lou Willet Stanek describes the difference between writing a memoir and an autobiography in her book, Writing Your Life.

'If you were to write an autobiography, you would have to spend a lot of time at the courthouse, looking up the date your great-grandfather was born, what year your father bought the house on Elm Street. The research for a memoir can be done in an easy chair. Close your eyes and try to recapture the moment you bought your first car, learned you were pregnant, met the President or wobble down the street on a two-wheeler.'

Stories to Tell

Memoirs have been around for a long time. People were always interested in revealing snapshots of their life from their own perspective. We can even trace the memoir back to ancient times. Julius Caesar wrote his first known memoir, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, around 50 BCE. It depicted his firsthand experiences of the epic battles he fought during the Gallic Wars.

Memoirs remain a popular literary genre today. Rock stars want to tell their fans all about their hard-partying days on the road. Celebrities write tell-alls about the harsh side of show business. Soldiers reveal their war experiences, drug addicts describe the ups and downs of seeking a sober life, and mentally ill people write about their struggles to find clarity. There are a million different personal stories to tell and the memoir provides a reader a window into another person's life.

Popular Examples

Real life can be just as interesting as fiction. Here are a few critically acclaimed memoirs from the 20th century that we'll discuss:

  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A Moveable Feast By Ernest Hemingway (1964)

Ernest Hemingway knew how to have a good time. He was a celebrity in an era when American authors were treated like movie stars. A Moveable Feast was published in 1964, after Hemingway's death. The memoir features Hemingway's collection of tales about his days living as an expatriate writer in Paris during the 1920s, before he became famous.

As the young man depicted in this 1923 passport photo, Hemingway hung around with a few other popular writers you may have heard of: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, to name a few.

Running with Scissors: A Memoir By Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs' mother gave her 12-year-old son away to her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, who doled out prescription medicine like candy. Burroughs' new, extremely odd family lived in a run-down dirty Victorian house, along with a few of the psychiatrist's patients and other adopted kids.

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