What Is a Memoir? - Definition & Examples

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Great Global Conversation: Reading Passages on the SAT

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 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
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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.


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 wobbled 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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account