What Exactly Is a Memoir?

A memoir is a work of nonfiction that is written in a first-person narrative about a time in someone’s life. It is important not to confuse a memoir with an autobiography, as the two are so often done. Unlike a memoir that tells a story about a specific timeframe, an autobiography is a nonfiction story told by the author and spanning their entire lives. 

Definition of Memoir

The Oxford-English dictionary defines a memoir as “a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources.” There are 4 characteristics that a body of work must have in order to be considered a memoir:

  • A memoir must be a true story. Memoirs, like autobiographies and biographies, are nonfiction works.
  • A focus. Authoring a story with a hodgepodge of anecdotes and unrelated snippets that span across an entire lifetime is not considered a memoir.
  • A transformation. Memoirs often, but not always, include some transformation surrounding the author.
  • Authenticity and character arc. Because memoirs focus specifically on a period of time they need to include an authentic character with good development and a strong arc.

Four Main Types of Memoirs

While there are no hard and fast rules about the type of memoir you could create, there are four basic subtypes of memoirs that are commonly used. Using one of these memoir types can help guide you through drafting your story.

  • Transformation
  • Confessional
  • Professional
  • Travel

Transformative style memoirs are written by the author about a transformative time in their lives. Past Presidents commonly use a transformative story for their memoirs after they leave office. Confessional memoirs tend to be more personal than other types. Confessional style memoirs describe secrets, painful memories, and other taboo subjects.

Professional memoirs are written with the goal of informing the audience about the author’s profession. Travel memoirs are just that. Filled with vacation memories, travel highlights, and sometimes helpful information.

Should I Write a Memoir or Autobiography?

Whether you should write a memoir or autobiography depends on your goal. If you are young and healthy then an autobiography is preemptive. Many people write autobiographies near the end of their lives. A memoir, on the other hand, can be written at any point in the author’s life.

If you are looking to highlight a specific event such as a backpacking trip through Europe or earning a college degree at age 15, then you want to choose to write a memoir over an autobiography.