Much of the blog content here at Art of Stories has been intended for fiction writers. This is a tragedy. It’s also the result of simple ignorance in the field of creative nonfiction.

Honestly, there’s a stunning lack of communication between writers of fiction and nonfiction. At the start of the journey into creative nonfiction, it felt like an effort to bridge this monstrous divide. There were thorny prejudices in place I didn’t know were present in myself, and beastly walls of pride to break down. It really was repulsive to recognize my gut reaction to a young person who said, “I’m writing a memoir.”

Memoir, really, was the start of this study, and is one of the more popular forms of creative nonfiction. It’s also one of the most difficult when it comes to publication. The tough market exists for the same reasons my opinion soured every time someone claimed this as their project. The biggest questions: “Who cares? What makes your life different from everyone else’s? Who would read some nobody’s personal history?”

Although these questions (if directed at an individual and barbed with resentment) are exceptionally rude, they’re also one of the first questions accomplished memoirists, editors, and publishing insiders recommend to writers pursuing this type of project. Of all the reading I did, I loved the list in the Forbes article “So You Want to Write a Memoir“. It’s not pretty, but Kiri Blakely dishes a list full of blunt truth about the market for memoir. Sensational, sexy, or already successful. That’s it! Be one, two, or all three of these if you want to ever make money with a memoir.

This marketing advice aside, the word “memoir” carries with it some very heavy connotations. The most common is outlined perfectly in Blakely’s list, and this is the one that makes most people think critically about those who write memoir. Really, though, when people say they’re writing a memoir, that might not be what they’re intending to produce at all!

After reading a few books on the subject, including Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach and The Art of Time In Memoir by Sven Birkerts, it’s impressively clear that memoir is only one of several formal personal narrative forms. Really, after just puking out your experiences in whatever way they come to you, a personal narrative can become any one of these just as easily as it can be made a formal memoir. This list comes directly from Writing Life Stories:

Memoir: “A rendering of lived life, as filtered through memory and the wider net of the needs of narrative.”

Personal Essay: “A conversation with the reader, an informed mixture of personality, wisdom, facts, and storytelling.”

Literary Journalism: “A big and varied category… an article {that makes} elegant use of the tools of the novelist: scene, characters, drama, dialogue, plot.”

Mosaic: “An essay constructed entirely of discrete blocks of text, usually short and self-contained, that are ordered and juxtaposed without any particular attempt at transition one from the next.”

Lyric Essay: “A kind of prose poem approached from the nonfiction side… a hybrid mix of personal essay, mosaic, lyric poem, the aforementioned prose poem, and certainly memoir.”

Journals and Diaries: “A collection of dated entries that gather force by accretion of experience, always chronological.”

The list of potential final forms goes on to include Nature Writing (experience involving nature, like Walden), Literary Travel Writing, Crossed Genres (the mutt), Experimental (form over content), and even Hack writing (you hate it, but need the money!). Still, these are written forms, the words an author would use when pitching their work to an agent, editor, or publisher. They don’t reflect the content, quality, or even purpose of writing down personal experience in the first place!

The purpose and quality of the work is the real measure of a personal history, whatever form it takes. In The Art of Time In Memoir, Birkerts’ study of contemporary memoirists focuses on time. Really, writing deeply into your own past requires being in several places at once in time. There’s the past “I”, the current “I”, and the “I” that’s looking at the two others and making meaningful connections. Consider how all of them are present in this passage:

“I recall how it felt to watch the 10:15 train pull away. Running down the platform, I dropped my coat to wave with both hands as if somehow that was more of a sincere goodbye than just waving the one. A rush of desperate enthusiasm on one day is a poor substitute for years of letting love go unspoken.”

Current “I” recalls the memory. Past “I” drops the coat and waves. The observer “I” makes the observation about enthusiasm and love. Really an impressive device native to writing personal narrative, no matter what form the author finally carves out of it.

Writing our own story is fascinating, cathartic, curative, and healthy (usually). It’s rarely very lucrative, but it can be exceptionally beautiful and artistic. So yes, if you want to call a raw personal narrative a memoir, go for it. And, if it’s going to be book length and marketed to be published as a formal memoir, good luck to you! I’m looking forward to learning more about the writing craft wonders creative nonfiction has to offer.


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