Memoir – What Exactly Is It? (1)

I have been invited to design and give a 2-morning workshop on writing memoir. Brilliant. I’ve been wanted to workshop writing memoir for a while now. Easy, I thought. After all I’ve written my own memoir. Then I read someone else’s memoir and then another and then a book which was really bio-fiction, which took me full circle. And set me thinking. How about books published as fiction when, since they were based on the writer’s experiences, could be considered bio-fiction? eg David Copperfield. Why were the earliest of novels portrayed as real life histories eg Robinson Crusoe? Because the writer wanted readers to think they were reading true stories. Back then, such novels couldn’t be marketed any other way. The word memoir didn’t exist, and, according to my Oxford Shorter Dictionary, the word bio-fiction still doesn’t exist. So let’s get to basics.

Definitions of the word memoir.

A historical account or biography from personal knowledge.                          Too limited.

A  collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public and private, that took place in the person’s life.                                                  Better.

As to my investigations into bio-fiction, the collective wisdom seems to be that bio-fiction is telling other people’s stories, but telling them in a dialogue-rich format so the narrative reads like a novel. Yes, partly, but bio-fiction can become a short story. And bio-fiction is not only for telling other people’s stories. The writer can tell his own story. eg Any Human Heart by William Boyd.

An article in The Times (22 January 2003) described Penelope Lively’s book  A House Unlocked as a ‘non-fiction memoir’.

Surely all memoir is non-fiction? Just to confuse the issue, I have a memoir in front of me, in which the writer tells us that her first memory was not in fact a memory but in her imagination so clearly that it became a memory.  And a second writer who happily admits that when she couldn’t recall an incident in enough detail she made it up. And I was under the impression that memoir was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Seems not necessarily. Confused?

Enough for today. I’ve been drafting the timetable for the Memoir Workshop when we shall learn, discuss and maybe disagree, about memoir. And I will be covering bio-fiction as some students will prefer to put the words on paper with a degree of subterfuge. And writing will be completed.

Learn more next week.




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