Journaling Blogtalk: A Discussion about Memoir 8

Though this Blogtalk isn’t strictly about journaling, it is about life-writing, which I hope is of interest to you my dear readers. This week I came across a couple of articles on the Neiman Foundation Storyboard about memoir that I thought would interest those of you who are writing your life stories (whether in short, narrative essay, or book-length form).

The first, “It’s Not Just About You,” discusses the question of what makes memoir relevant to readers. If you’re writing for others, you need to think about what will engage them and keep them turning the page. Here’s a short excerpt:

“In memoir, ego is too often a key element of the process. The impulse to write memoir is the impulse to resist death, to leave some trace of ourselves on earth. These impulses are entirely understandable, but risky motivations for a piece of writing. They make it too easy to forget the most important person, the reader. The reader wants to be delighted, enlightened, entertained – to have his or her attention held throughout the act of reading.”

“ … people read memoirs because they want to compare the author’s life with their own lives.”


Another article on the same site, “Death, Truth, and Memoir: the debate over Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story,” asks the same question from the reader’s, rather than the writer’s, perspective. “What is it that we really want from memoir?” Again, though this article is a lot about Oates’ new memoir (not necessarily favorable), there is a great deal of good information, as well as thought-provoking insights in the article.

“The best memoirs recount loss and change in a way that offers more than thrills based on peeking into someone else’s suffering. Instead, the most powerful stories say something unknown about the person’s life, touching on universal experiences while giving us a glimpse of the ultimately unknowable aspects of another’s existence.”

What do you think about the ideas presented in these articles? Do you agree or disagree, and why?


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8 thoughts on “Journaling Blogtalk: A Discussion about Memoir

  • Linda Sievers

    I fully agree with the quotes of these two articles. If readers, audience members, viewers of art works cannot find empathic connection with the work that somehow elevates or inspires their consciousness, then what is the point of the work?

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Sometimes, we write our stories simply because we need to. And, as the author of the first quote states, “These impulses are entirely understandable.” Yet, if we wish to take it a step further and put our life story out there for others to read, it’s important to ask what our readers will get out of it.

      From personal experience, I know that this can be difficult to determine by oneself (just because I think my story is interesting, doesn’t mean it is). That’s why it’s so important to build writing community, to participate in writing circles, and build your writing craft through classes and workshops. The more feedback I can get for my writing, the better.

  • Carol

    I, too, agree with the quotes and I wonder if it is why so many people find memoir so difficult to write. We need to write down our stories, to share experiences, but if we wish to have them read by a larger audience, than say, our families, then they do need to be entertaining or thought provoking and appeal to many in a story form.
    I also agree, Amber, that we benefit from circles and groups, but it is very difficult to find an appropriate group…very, at least in my experience. ;D

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Carol, yes it is sometimes difficult to find a group that is specifically focused on memoir, or at least creative nonfiction. That is one of the reasons I so appreciate the Story Circle Network ( They’re all about lifewriting. There are other groups, as well. And you’ve given me an idea for a future blog post — memoir writing critique groups and forums. Thank you!

  • RYCJ

    I am quite passionate about reading memoirs because they promote understanding among people of varied cultures and experiences. I can read memoirs and totally disagree with a perspective, or reasoning, or lifestyle even, but walk away with a better understanding about those who shape the world I live in. It really helps tone down my own judgments.

    Those, however, who write memoirs are indeed very brave for the criticisms many face for writing them. I’ve never known of a memoir that has not been challenged by (parts of) the reading public. Perception is one of the trickiest monsters there is, a major issue for both writers and readers.

    My problem with writing a memoir is that I respect the privacy of those who’ve shaped my life. Both the good and the bad.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      RYCJ, you’ve given us some more great reasons to read memoir. I think when we realize that memory is simply a person’s perception of the truth (not necessarily factual), we will open our hearts to hear what he or she has to say with less judgment.

      Do you think that memoirs, in general, do not respect privacy? What about those writers who check in with and receive permission from the people they plan to write about? (I’m not saying that is necessary, simply that some memoirists do just that.)

  • RYCJ

    Oh, no. Quite to the contrary. And you’re absolutely correct, memoir writers shouldn’t have to ask for permission. It’s ‘their’ memoir, which is what I find so brave and fascinating about them. To be able to tell your story, which of course will involve others who lived it with you, and of course when I feel the author is being sincere in the effort, is the most altruistic work there is. I don’t want to go on and on, but I’m the one who is the coward, regardless of my reason. As I’ve read in another spot on your blog, these memoirs serve a very necessary humane purpose in my ‘opinion’. It’s just too bad others don’t always feel the same.

  • Susan Godwin

    After reading both articles, a line from each resonated with me. “Our experiences are meaningful to other people because of their larger implications, their echoes.”
    “The author is permitting us to be present for the serious experience of a life.”
    “A Cluttered Life” by Pesi Dinnerstein, impacted me on many levels! I found it extremely illuminating, piquant, humorous, and, most of all, it gives me hope for my similar circumstances.