On Memoir

Memoir Week at Slate.com

Thought-provoking essays from Fourth Genre

On Memoir, Truth and ‘Writing Well’, an NPR interview with William Zinsser

“An Imperishable Attitude”: A Memoir of Learning and Teaching by Steve R. Simmons


[Writing memoir] is and it isn’t [much different from fiction writing]. It has formal demands, demands of shapeliness in the way that fiction does. There are some things, which, if left out, would make an untruthful record. Memoir has a responsibility to the truth, or the truth as best you can tell it. That is to say, if you willfully suppressed something – well, there is no point writing a memoir if you don’t want to tell the truth as you see it. To deliberately fudge something that made you look better, or made someone else look better – that’s the kind of issue that comes up in memoir that does not come up in fiction.

Mary Gordon in “Writing to Understand Yourself,” an interview with Charlotte Templin, in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline.


Spiritual memoir is an intimate conversation between oneself and a great mystery. When authors raise ruthless questions, grapple with awe and suffering, joy and doubt, paradox and unity, in the context of their life’s story, this is spiritual memoir.

Elizabeth J. Andrew, author, writing coach, and spiritual director.


A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, the other of craft. The first element is integrity of intention. Memoir is the best search mechanism that writers are given. Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.

The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t. We like to think that Thoreau went home to Concord and just wrote up his notes. He didn’t. He wrote seven drafts of Walden in eight years, piecing together by what Margaret Fuller [one of Thoreau’s contemporaries] calls the mosaic method, a book that seems casual, even chatty.

From Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser.


More to come…

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