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Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013)


A form of creative nonfiction in which an author recounts experiences from his or her life.

"A memoir," says Gore Vidal, "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).

See also:


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)

  • Fred Exley's "Note to the Reader" in A Fan's Notes
    "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)

  • 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)

  • 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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