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Types of Memoirs and Examples
 

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To organize your thoughts about writing your memoir, read other memoirs. I’ve compiled a list of memoirs and placed them in categories. Your own story may combine more than one of these approaches, or might be completely unique. As I review additional memoirs, I will include them as examples with a few tips about where they fit into the overall genre of memoir writing. Because this is my own list, it doesn't represent the marketplace as a whole, but rather reflects my interests and discoveries to date. I have examined, read, and reviewed many of these memoirs on my blog.

Family legacy

For every published memoir, there are thousands of people who simply want to leave a family legacy, fleshing in stories about where they've been and what they've done. Created for your own social network, you can start anywhere and write anything. Create lists, including dates and short descriptions of the major events and transitions. “I was born in 1921. When I was five and went to school and discovered they spoke a different language than we did at home.” Or write scenes as they come to mind, and put them in a binder or computer file. These informal beginnings can become an end in themselves, offering pleasure and information to your family, providing material for your writing group, or forming the basis for more formal writing.

Intersection with history or politics

What historical changes did you experience. Do you have a story to tell about growing up during the Cold War, or the Depression, or the Vietnam protests, or you fled Castro’s Cuba, or the Iranian revolution. Your recollections will offer people a glimpse into those historic events and periods.

“Life and death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng

"West into the Night" by Beryl Markham

"China Road" by Rob Gifford

Nostalgia

Nostalgia can be an important ingredient of memoir writing. If your memories provide insights into the haunting images of the past, your story might raise similar emotions in readers who remember or want to remember those times.

“A silent gesture” by Tommie Smith and David Steele

"Vinyl Highway: Singing with Dick and Dee Dee " by Dee Dee Phelps

War

People who were actually in war are so profoundly affected by their experiences, and then must live with these memories. Sharing your war memoirs informs readers of the realities of war, shares parts of history, and help you heal from the alienation and trauma of war.

“My Detachment” by Tracy Kidder

"In Pharoah's Army" by Tobias Kidder

“Shades of Darkness” by George Brummell

"Goodbye Darkness" by William Manchester

Public or Celebrity life

People are fascinated by celebrity, that strange sense of knowing someone that you’ve never met, and sharing that intimacy with many other people, perhaps even millions of them. What a strange phenomenon. For whatever reason, people can’t get enough. Your transition from anonymity to public notice is also a type of coming of age story.

“The other side of me” by Sydney Sheldon

"Down came the rain" by Brooke Shields

"In The Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson" by Sue Erikson Bloland

"But enough about me, how a small town girl went from the shag carpet to the red carpet" by Jancee Dunn

"Native State" by Tony Cohan

Charity or service

Serving other people provides an intersection between your life and the life of those who need your help. If you devoted a period of your life to serving others, you have a story to tell about the human condition, about the particular situation of the people you are serving, and about what it was like to serve.

“Out of my life and thought” by Albert Schweitzer

Personal struggle or witness

You may want to write about overcoming a hardship. You might have faced a mental or physical health challenge, cared for aging parents, or survived cancer. Telling the tale of your survival of these personal struggles could help other people understand your world and give them inspiration to survive their own.

“Thinking in Pictures, My Life with Autism” by Temple Grandin

“The year of magical thinking” by Joan Didion

"Lucky" by Alice Sebold

"Down Came the Rain" by Brooke Shields

"I Know You Really Love Me" by Doreen Orion

"Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life" by Perry Foster

"Ten Points" by Bill Strickland

"Pursuit of Happyness" by Chris Gardner

"Look me in the eye" by John Robison

Social or cultural struggle or witness

If your life encountered social injustice, your personal life intersected with a period of history. Your experience can give people a glimpse into how individuals strive withn the context of their society.

“Man’s search for meaning,” by Viktor Frankl

“Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Chang

"Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America" by Firoozeh Dumas

"The Invisible Wall" by Harry Bernstein

Advice based on experience

These books pass along lessons learned from personal experience, for example, How I succeeded in business and you can too. How I became a writer and you can too. You may also tell about the basis for your belief system that grew out of your own life experience.

“Out on a Limb” by Shirley Maclaine uses personal experience to teach a thought system.

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamotte, teaches how to live a writers life.

“Man's Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl teaches a system for improving your life.

Coming of Age

The story of growing from a child to an adult is one of the most profound transitions in life. We all went through it, and can learn from other people’s experience of this transition.

Coming of Age often includes a special treatment of family life. While some of the books that reach public notice are extreme. Others are merely quirky or particular. If you look carefully at the issues and elements of your own particular early life experience, you can offer your own slant on the journey of going from child to adult. What was your cultural experience, family habits and customs, caregiving or misfortune in your home, family secrets. Nomadic life. Mixed race parents. Your relationships with your siblings. Gypsy life. Life in a drugstore. Life in a coal mining family. What other unique features could organize the story of your life?

“The Other Side of Me” by Sydney Sheldon (Note: The first half is rags to riches and coming of age. The second half is all about fame.)

"Name all the animals" by Alison Smith

"Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama

"Mistress's Daughter" by A. M. Homes

“Angela's Ashes” by Frank Mccourt

"Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls

"Sleeping Arrangements" by Laura Shaine Cunningham

Rags to riches

If you started out poor, and then achieved success, your story is a special case of Coming of Age. You also may not have been exactly in rags. If you were a struggling artist and eventually won acclaim, that too can form the basis for a story.

“The other side of me” by Sydney Sheldon

"Pursuit of Happyness" by Chris Gardner

Spritual Journey

Beyond what we can see, the spiritual journey looks for a transcendent meaning. Because it is so personal, memoir is the perfect medium to share insights into the spiritual dimension.

"The Path" by Donald Walters

"Expecting Adam" by Martha Beck

"Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith" by Anne Lamott

"Here if you need me" by Kate Braestrup

Travel

When you write about your travels you have the opportunity to send back to your home tribe the sights and sounds of the world. As a reporter you can describe native costumes, surprising architecture, and all the things that make those people unique. But people can read about facts in an encyclopedia. A travel memoir gives you an opportunity to combine all those picturesque descriptions with your first person account. If you fell in love with the place, or fell in love with a person, if it changed your world, or came at a particular time when your world was changing, you can draw the reader into your experience by writing a travel memoir.

"China Road" by Rob Gifford

Second Coming of Age

The transition from childhood to being an adult is a big deal,. But it's not the only time in life when we must expand our ability to act in the world. A woman who leaves her marriage and family to start life anew. A man who was blinded in war and now must come of age all over again. And late bloomers and retirees of the world wonder about the next chapter in life. This is what happens after mid-life crisis, when instead of sinking back into the old routine, you find new challenges, and a new chapter in which to express yourself in the world.

"Hands Upon My Heart: My Journey Through Heart Disease and Into Life" by Perry Foster
This is a classic second coming of age story. After bypass surgery he reevaluates his relationship to life.

Romance

Romance enters memoirs in a variety of ways. George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness, tells of his passionate love affair with a Korean girl and the touching breaking off of that affair when he left the country. In my mind, it signaled his transition from a young rural boy to a man. At the opposite extreme, Tracy Kidder in “My Detachment” tells of his anti-romantic visit to a hooker devoid of even a perfunctory interest. When Sydney Sheldon in “The Other Side of Me” first met the woman who would become his wife, he “knew immediately” they would be married. And they were. This was not a drawn out courtship! How you tell your romantic experiences will represent your own unique experience, anywhere from Sheldon’s abbreviated one to a long, complex romance. If you want to tell it in more detail than makes sense in your memoir, a romantic novel would give you more room to explore it and a larger audience to read it. If you fell in love over and over, you might struggle to turn your tales into a story. Stories need to lead the reader to some sort of conclusion, and endless romance often leads in circles. Whether these memories end up in your completed memoir or not, by writing about them, you will learn about your own development. Your recollections of romance will reveal scenes and insights that ultimately add up to the narrative of your life.

 

 

 

Last modified:
2/8/200

Jerry Waxler
Copyright Jerry Waxler, 2004, All Rights Reserved