Thanks for the memoirs

We can get lost in the stories we tell ourselves

John O’Donohue

Yesterday I participated in a Memoir writing workshop with Sara El Sayed through the Queensland Writers’ Centre. I was supposed to be attending in person but after a few ‘muck-arounds’ and wondering what the universe was trying to tell me (if anything…) I settled on doing the live stream.

Why? Why would anyone want to read about my life? Well that’s the $64,000 question isn’t it?

A fellow writer and member of the Gold Coast Writers’ Association asked last week, “Why do people want to write memoir?” I think she had (as have many of the ‘memoir’ writers who attend our meetings) conflated ‘biography’ and ‘memoir’. A biography is an account of a person’s life written by someone else, while an autobiography is an account of a person’s life written by that person. Pretty straight forward? So what is a memoir?

Google tells us a memoir is an historical account or biography written from personal knowledge. For example, “in 1924 she published a short memoir of her husband” and gives us these similar words: account, historical account, history, record, chronicle, commentary, narrative… You get the picture. Google also says a memoir is an essay on a learned subject. That’s a new definition to me. Wikipedia says A memoir (/ˈmɛmwɑːr/; from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence) is any nonfiction narrative writing based in the author’s personal memories.

So if you write about your trip to Egypt it’s a travel memoir. If you write about all your travels throughout your life, it’s still a memoir. If you write your life story and it happens to include your travels, that’s an autobiography. If you’re famous enough someone else will do it for you in a biography. Clear as mud?

For me, writing the memoir (doing the work) and publishing it (showing it to others or putting a price tag on it) are two completely separate things. I’ve been writing a memoir since late 1994. It’s a work-in-slow-progress. Writing down my memories and stories is like breathing for me. It would be foolish and pointless for me to publish 90% of what I write. It’s waffle! And besides, it’s for me. It’s a way of organising my thoughts.

Memoir can help others. I have read a few biographies and it’s always inspiring to read of the exploits of famous people but for the really powerful stuff, give me the memoir of an otherwise ordinary person. Many authors say they want to tell their story in order to help or inspire others. Like my niece, who is writing about her spiritual experiences and lessons learned while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. She hopes that her story might be of service to others.

So what’s my story? I should say “stories” because there are two major events in my life that I think others may find useful or interesting. When I started writing, I wasn’t trying to help anyone but myself. I was trying to understand these events and the best way I know to do that is to write about them. This is what I said in answer to Judy’s question of “why do people write memoir?”

People write memoir, as opposed to biography, to discuss a particular time or experience in their life. For example, I am writing a memoir about my experiences as a young widow and another about my experiences as an adoptee and foster sister. Who will read it? (Maybe no one. I may never publish these writings, although a publisher has expressed interest in the first concept.) The reader for these stories is someone who has had similar experiences of adoption or fostering, or losing a spouse, or both because surely I am not the only one. And of course, there’s anyone curious about such things.

On the internet, we are asked to be storytellers every day; we must narrativise our lives if we want to exist in a digital realm as well as the real one.

Phillippa Finkemeyer – Kill Your Darlings

Last night a friend said she felt as though social media influencers, and those who wish they were, see themselves as the star in their own movie, the protagonist surrounded by all the bit players who can contribute their content then exit, stage left. This rang so true. We hear stories all the time about the stress of content creation and how it can drive people to make really poor and sometimes dangerous choices.

We all think we have to be the hero of our own story and the headphones are providing the soundtrack.

The real aim in writing memoir, like any writing, should be to write a compelling story. Humans are natural born story tellers. It’s how we make sense of our world and it’s how we’ve been passing on knowledge for millennia.

I put a lot of myself out there for people to read and look at, but I’d like to think it’s an extension of the real me and not just content for consumption. Believe me, it’s obvious by my numbers that mine is not the kind of work that attracts a massive readership.

If I can give one bit of advice to any memoirist, biographer, you know what…? To all the writers out there… can we all just chill out a bit? Please? Some of you are so intense and anxious about your writing and nothing ends well if you’re anxious. You get all sweaty and puckered.

Creative pursuits are enough of a challenge without getting yourself all worked up about things that may never happen. At least ten minutes of the memoir workshop was taken up by people asking about defamation law and another 15 minutes by whether or not we had to ask permission of those who appear in our memoirs. This makes me so mad! I wanted to scream…well no, I wanted to type in all caps in the chat; We’re here to learn how to write a memoir. We’re here to get tips on writing from a published memoirist.

Publishing comes later. Much later.

Yes, the spectre of a defamation charge is there but we cross that bridge if we come to it. In my limited experience I’ve found a majority of memoirists and non-fiction writers to be staunchly in favour of traditional publishing so much so that they will fall for scams and predatory vanity publishers in their rush for validation. If you get a trad deal, you won’t have to worry about legals. If the story is good and a publisher wants to tackle it, they will have their legal team to sort it. If you’re going to self publish you need to speak to a lawyer or an organisation like (This is for Australians. If you’re not in Australia your country might have a similar body.) Easy fixed.

Now go and pour yourself something to drink and sit down and write.

Here’s a snippet from the intro to one of my memoirs, Remembering Paris.

A memoir is a snapshot. It’s a moment in time captured and handed around for others to see. The words, faded by time. In this photo, two faces, squinting into the camera. We’re smiling. The smiles from back then are different, I think. Before the invention of the selfie stick, smiles seemed more real, brighter. In this moment, the two of us, grinning, my hand on his broad chest to show the ring I had chosen.

I found a great podcast this week. It started out as a hassle; I had to listen to my podcasts on another platform because I did an update on my phone and my usual player just wouldn’t play! #firstworldstruggle So I stumbled across this one called Make Art not Content. It’s super cool and I’m far too old to be listening to it but it’s my new binge. I love the one called Big Thoughts kill Small Thoughts. It’s a beauty.


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