Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"To place yourself on the page," say Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, "is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation" (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, 2013).


A memoir is a form of creative nonfiction in which an author recounts experiences from his or her life. Memoirs usually take the form of a narrative,

The terms memoir and autobiography are commonly used interchangeably, and the distinction between these two genres is often blurred. In the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Murfin and Ray say that memoirs differ from autobiographies in "their degree of outward focus. While [memoirs] can be considered a form of autobiographical writing, their personalized accounts tend to focus more on what the writer has witnessed than on his or her own life, character, and developing self."

In his own first volume of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995), Gore Vidal makes a different distinction. "A memoir," he says, "is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. In a memoir it isn't the end of the world if your memory tricks you and your dates are off by a week or a month as long as you honestly try to tell the truth" (Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995).

"The one clear difference," says Ben Yagoda, "is that while 'autobiography' or 'memoirs' usually cover the full span of [a] life, 'memoir' has been used by books that cover the entirety or some portion of it" (Memoir: A History, 2009). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "memory"

Examples and Observations

  • "[O]nce you begin to write the true story of your life in a form that anyone would possibly want to read, you start to make compromises with the truth."
    (Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History. Riverhead, 2009)
  • Zinsser on the Art and Craft of Memoir
    "A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention. . . . Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.
    "The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won't. . . . Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events."
    (William Zinsser, "Introduction." Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Mariner, 1998)
  • Rules for the Memoirist
    "Here are some basic rules of good behavior for the memoirist:
    - Say difficult things. Including difficult facts.
    - Be harder on yourself than you are on others. The Golden Rule isn't much use in memoir. Inevitably you will not portray others just as they would like to be portrayed. But you can at least remember that the game is rigged: only you are playing voluntarily.
    - Try to accept the fact that you are, in company with everybody else, in part a comic figure.
    - Stick to the facts." (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)
  • Memoir and Memoirs
    "Like many people today, I confused 'the memoir' with 'memoirs.' It was easy to do back then, when the literary memoir was not basking in the popularity it currently enjoys. The term memoirs was used to describe something closer to autobiography than the essay-like literary memoir. These famous person memoirs rarely stuck to one theme or selected out one aspect of a life to explore in depth, as the memoir does. More often, 'memoirs' (always preceded by a possessive pronoun: 'my memoirs,' 'his memoirs') were a kind of scrapbook in which pieces of a life were pasted. Of course, the boundary between these genres was not—and still is not—as clearly delineated as I have made it sound."
    (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, 2nd ed. Eighth Mountain, 2002)
  • Roger Ebert on the Stream of Writing
    "The British satirist Auberon Waugh once wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph asking readers to supply information about his life between birth and the present, explaining that he was writing his memoirs and had no memories from those years. I find myself in the opposite position. I remember everything. All my life I've been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. . . . When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn't consciously thought about since. . . . In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note."
    (Roger Ebert, Life Itself: A Memoir. Grand Central Publishing, 2011)
  • Fred Exley's "Note to the Reader" in A Fan's Notes: A Fictional Memoir
    "Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life, many of the characters and happenings are creations solely of the imagination. . . . In creating such characters, I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy."
    (Fred Exley, A Fan's Notes: A Fictional Memoir. Harper & Row, 1968)
  • The Lighter Side of Memoirs
    "All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn't sit in the same room with me."
    (Dorothy Parker)

Pronunciation: MEM-war

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "memoir." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). memoir. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "memoir." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).