Memoir: Up Close and Personal

Memoir. Autobiography. What's the difference? Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is an "up close and personal" difference regarding the emotional intent of the writing.

An autobiography is a broad sweep of a life...

...Think of a large, epic painting in a gallery...

On that canvas, your students will view a visual story, filled with the grandeur of action. You see color, movement, a story. This is an autobiography. Now walk closer to the painting itself, and you begin to detect the small brushstrokes that create the scene. You are studying the swatches of color that compose each section of the visual story, the building blocks of the larger view. This is memoir.

As an autobiography is a narrative timeline of events, memoir is a recounting of intensely personal incidents which have shaped the timeline itself. These written confessions are often more meaningful in nature and more descriptive in language, focusing on moments which are considered life-changing for the author.

As your students write creatively through an autobiographical slant, here is a memoir writing project to aid them in examining the emotional nuances of life.

  • Identify a meaningful incident that has made a lasting impression. It may work best if you, as the instructor, select a general topic or prompt for which everyone can find personal meaning (ie, My proudest moment was when...). For a large collection of ready-to-go writing suggestions,browse through these pages.

  • Write a focus statement summarizing why the incident is important (This was my proudest moment because...)
  • Use vivid details in the rough draft. Describe actions, settings, people, and emotions with descriptive words, phrases, and sentences.
  • Revise according to these key memoir guidelines: is this experience identified and explained clearly, does rich sensory language describe the events and people involved in this incident, and most importantly, is it clear why this experience holds personal relevance for the writer?
  • Publish these mini-memoirs. A complete cooperative display, with illustrations and captions, is always a good choice.
Here is food-for-thought for a closing class discussion! How would you prefer to chronicle your life and why? Autobiography or memoir?

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