Memoir as an art form

I love memoirs. They combine the most fascinating elements of fiction with the best aspects of first-person experience. They are true and not-true, specific and universal, full of fact and full of fancy at the same time. They distill the most telling detail of a moment in a person's life and make that detail one that every person can embrace as his or her own. One of my favorites is Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

Vladimir Nabokov caricature

A memoir is not an autobiography. It is not exhaustive, not chronological, and not filled with verified facts. Because it is the personal experience of the author, imbued with the caveat that it is a memory rather than a list of events and places, a memoir need not be unduly sparing of the feelings of other people whose lives touch the author's: people are less likely to sue the writer of a memoir for slander or libel, since the haze of gentle memory hangs over the memoir like a protective shroud.

Wikipedia's article on the genre of memoir says this:

"Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private that took place in the author's life."

It's well-known that memory is not exact, and that memories are shaped by emotion as much as by perception and thought. If a memoir makes a character look bad, the author can excuse himself or herself by pleading "a poor memory" or a misunderstanding.

Thus the memoirist is relatively free to write what is in her or his memory. The descriptions of place can be loose, as they are not meant as literal guideposts (as in an official biography) but rather as backdrops for the piece. The characters can be inconsistent and hard to understand, as they are not meant as symbols or archetypes (as in literary fiction) but rather as people deciphered by the memoirist, who may not have grasped what was actually happening (especially if the memoir is about something that happened to a child).

Thus the memoir has the freedom of fiction without the need for organizing and blending such tedious elements as exposition (the who, what, and where of the story), plot or story line, climax, or resolution. The memoir can rest in any one of these areas and still be complete.

The memoir also escapes the drudgery of a serious biography: fact-checking, omission of things that can't be verified, need to consider legal action against the author if certain things are included or not said delicately enough, and the balancing of dull, necessary information with more exciting revelations and events.

The memoir is just that: a memory. When I write a memoir, I am free to write what I remember without constant worry that I am remembering incorrectly. It's my own personal memory, and can't be taken as universal truth. The memoir is not burdensome; it is art.


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