Memoir Essay Example and Tips on Writing
Sharing a personal memory or experience through a written text is one of the most common forms of essay you will find by any author. It's the way you meet with your literary masters for a cup of coffee even many years after they've passed away. And it's an open writing possibility for you as well.
If you want to share a bit of your life with a prospective audience of readers, the memoir essay is the way to do it, and in this article, we will provide you with some tips and tricks that will make your writing easier and your results more engaging and exciting.
Before we get started, we suggest for you to read a book by Dinty W. Moore called "Crafting the Personal Essay" where you will find more details and information on how to successfully face the task of writing a memoir essay and many other kinds.
The memoir essay: what is it?
The very word memoir makes you remember (no pun intended) the word memory. It has to do with remembering things from the past. It could be something about your childhood that's worth keeping in mind and sharing with other people, but it doesn't stop there, possibilities merely start there. An excellent memoir essay could be about those two years after high-school when you spent working at a five-and-dime in a small town (when such towns and such stores were still around). You could also recount your battle with cancer at age 40, that lasted about a couple of years and that you ended up winning. Or you could be seventy and write about the events that have happened in your life in the last lustrum as you embraced the adventure of constructing the retirement beach house of your dreams on the Nicoya Peninsula, in Costa Rica.
That's what memoir means. Something that has already happened and that you want to remember and share with others.
The memoir essay and the personal essay are often taught as different types of texts in nonfictional writing courses. And while there is a case to be made on how they differ, they also share a lot of similarities and have significant overlap regarding subject-matter and writing technique. You could, for instance, write a memoir without turning it into an essay. This would be writing the raw memoir as a recreation of the past only, with no additional thoughts included and with no additional elaboration. Yes, you could and yet, almost nobody writes in this way. Most writers will indeed re-create an event, but they will also consider the lessons learned from the episode and will share with the readers the things that make sense about the experience as well as those that remain puzzling.
That's how personal experiences become a tool for reflection. It's not about "back in the day, this happened to me, and it went like this" but about "it did happen like this, but it was an enriching experience because it made me think about and learn several lessons that would have escaped me otherwise, and these are those lessons." It's this opening for ponderation that turns a mere memoir into a memoir essay.
James Baldwin noted once that we always write starting from the personal experience we've accrued over time. But our job as a writer, our responsibility is to take that experience and squeeze it hard until it renders the words we want to get out from it to the very last drop sweet or bitter as it may be.
Three ways to bring your memoir essay to life.
Remember how important those details are.
Don't just tell your readers what happened to you, show them. If you want us to understand how much of a prankster Uncle Bob was, it's not enough that you mention it, but let us see him pulling off one of his pranks in your essay. So your grandmother's lasagna is the best dish ever served in human history, right? Well, don't just declare that but make us imagine how this lasagna got cooked, layer by layer, the flavor, and smell of the marinara sauce, the little bits of oregano randomly scattered around the meal and the cheese. And while you write about lasagna you must remember this as well, that all writing is about humans. So, introduce us to your grandmother as well, the way she worked hard in the kitchen when holidays approached because for her it was a dogmatic belief that food is love. Tell us about the apron she wore, the stoop of her back, her hands, her eyes.
Get your facts straight.
Granted, you will be writing about a piece of your personal story, the memory belongs to you. That doesn't mean you don't need to research thoroughly. You can't go back to archives, files and libraries as professional historians can when they aim to recreate the past but there's still work to do. Talk to your family members about this memoir, ask them what they remember, see if the way you recall the events matches theirs. "Memory is creative," Borges famously wrote. He meant it could be inaccurate and our mind is filling in for us all the time, so our memories are always faulty. So by talking to people about the particular event, you want to write will make them help you to remember things more accurately by taking into account how that same event has remained in their minds. Ask them to be honest. Even if your family doesn't own that old house in Fascination Street, you could still go for a walk and see how it looks now and see what other memories and bits of information it will bring to your attention. You will see (and thus remember) the park that was nearby with that weirdly shaped tree that fascinated you as a kid but had not recalled again for decades. Get your old photographs and look at them, see how much they will stir you and how much more you will remember by practicing such a simple exercise.
Avoid all bias.
This is your memoir but do not portray yourself as a hero and do not portray yourself as a victim. If you're going to write about how cool you are why should anybody be interested then? Likewise, if you are going to write in "poor little old me" mode, nobody should be interested either. You need to keep in mind that the point in the essay is to share the lessons it gave you, and if this or that happened just because you're so awesome or so unfortunate, then there's nothing there to learn for anybody else.