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MEMOIR WORKSHOP: What's a Memoir?

Fiction can be written from the point of view of one or several characters, or the narrator can be omniscient. A memoir is nonfiction and has only the voice of the author. It also has a theme or makes a point. The genre “memoir” has its own shelf under the category “nonfiction.”
The memoirist must tell the truth, but it is impossible to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The whole truth about anyone’s life would take up a million pages, so you must choose a set of facts and memories which make your point.
Truth is never unimpeachable. If you want to run a short test of this statement, ask your children about something in their childhood and see if it comports with your own recollection. Ask your spouse what happened the first time he met Aunt Millie (you have probably mutually honed the one about your first date, so choose something where you have not created a mutual memory). Ha!  I told you so. You are only required to tell the truth as you remember it. Remembering ancient truths takes work, patience, and persistence.
Since you are promising the truth; you are therefore telling the stories of all the other people in your story as well as yourself. You will relate conversations or incidents as you recall them, and if the other person might be compromised, you can change names or minor details, but not the integrity of your narrative. In Daring to Date Again, I write about an affair with a policeman. I changed his name and changed the town he worked in (he wasn’t keen on ever letting his mother and his fellow cops know that he had dated a woman who was twenty-four years older than he was). This change did not affect the truth of my story. But if we had, say, gone out to dinner one evening with the woman who later became his wife, I would be altering the truth of the story if I replaced her with another woman or left her out.
You might be embarrassed to admit that the love of your life was missing two front teeth, or got drunk every night, but the color will quickly fade from your tale if you don’t fess up. A common trap for memoirists is to replace what really happened with what they wish had happened, or what was the right thing to do. In all good literature, there are surprises, twists, and failures. When you are writing about your own life, it might be difficult to admit to your own silly, deluded self, but readers need not only truth but authenticity.
Since you are trafficking in the truth, you’re going to run into situations which you’d rather not talk about, yet which are necessary to make your point. So remember that it is hard to shock a reader. The prominent memoirist Anaïs Nin wrote about both sex with her father and bigamy and, if anything, these admissions enhanced her reputation. Your readers will have had some shocking, eccentric, perhaps illegal experiences themselves, and you demean them if you don’t admit your frauds, failures, and flaws.
A memoir is different from an autobiography. Famous people often write remembrances of other famous people they have interacted with, or the circumstances around their accomplishments. Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx, strikes me as such a book. In it, he presents himself as the public persona which appeared in the Marx Brothers’s movies – the prankster, the keen observer. One review wrote that the book “is a chatty, colorful story designed for shockeroos and honks and only gets dull when there are no more pranks to play.” Harpo may exaggerate and cherrypick the facts in the interest of entertainment, but the reader would be shocked to learn, for example, that the two boys who threw him out of a window at P.S. 86 in Manhattan in third grade were actually two Jewish boys (Harpo was Jewish) and not two Irish boys. We must trust his honesty and his memory.
People who are not famous write autobiographies for the edification of their family and friends, or because they have a unique story to tell which depends more on the story itself than on the author.
There is a fine line between autobiography and memoir. An autobiographer becomes a memoirist by restricting the scope of the book and becoming more confessional or confrontational with a deep truth. Instead of introducing the twelve-step program to overcome alcoholism, your book might become the screenplay for Days of Wine and Roses, the film in which “An alcoholic marries a young woman, whom he systematically addicts to booze so they can share his “passion” together.”
Some books are close to memoir, but have been fictionalized. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie surely uses a great deal of her own experience to tell the story, since both she and the protagonist are Nigerian women who came to America. But once the story veers significantly away from personal facts, it becomes fiction, and the author is no longer responsible for its truth.  If a writer wants to make a point which she feels strongly about, but has not lived through personally, she may choose to fictionalize characters and scenes. Or if an experience is too shattering to face publicly, fiction might serve as the best vehicle.
Identifying the vehicle which conveys your story will help you to corral your project.