Euan Thorneycroft, agent at AM Heath Literary Agency
“I got up at 6.17am, brushed my teeth and ate cornflakes for breakfast before going to work” is not the same as “I awoke early, my senses on fire. Today was going to change the course of my life – I could just feel it. I would show my colleagues what I was really made of.”
Ok, I’m no writer, but the first sentence is boring. The second one less so. Why? Because the first is simply a list of events. The second gives the reader more of a sense of the author – their thoughts, their feelings. Here is the first difference between the two forms. Autobiography tends to be more concerned with a person’s whole life, related in chronological order, while Memoir is more focussed. It is an intimate look at a moment in time. That moment might be a month, a year or several years.
Memoir is storytelling
As humans we want to be known and to know. Knowledge of a particular person is more than a knowledge of facts, dates and events which they have experienced. It is the gaining of an understanding of a person – knowing what drives them, what they fear, what they really think about a certain situation, how they interpret the world.
And this is where Memoir again diverges from Autobiography. Memoir is about Storytelling. It may be non-fiction by name, but it is fiction by nature. A great memoirist needs to bring similar skills to bear on their work as a novelist would – plotting, characterisation, dialogue, thematic resonance.
Of course, this means that Memoir is often more subjective than Autobiography with its more objective, fact-based retelling of a life. Memoir comes from the French word, “Memoire” which means Memory or Reminiscence. So, a memoir is often a version of events as remembered by the author, in which their thoughts and feelings are very much to the fore. This is what the reader is relying on in order to make sense of the author, rather than an Autobiography’s chronological list of events. And this version may or may not take place in chronological order, in the same way that novels often jump around in time.
Memoir is TRUE
But it’s important to stress that even if Memoir takes a lot from the Novel, it is ultimately something that is True. So, while we accept that a memoir might take certain liberties with chronology, conflate characters, reimagine dialogue, all with the aim of creating a vivid and arresting picture of the author and their experiences for the reader, it can’t stray into lies. It is a fine line between creativity and inauthenticity.
Take them on a journey with you
People have different motivations for writing a Memoir. They might want to make sense of their life, they might want to reveal certain injustices or abuses, they might simply want to make a record of a part of their life for family and friends. But remember, whatever the reasons, a Memoir needs to be arresting. It needs to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to go on the journey with you.
AM Heath celebrated its centenary in 2019. Euan is a former committee member of the Association of Authors Agents and speaks regularly about publishing at Creative Writing courses and Book Fairs.