The Is and Isn’t of Memoir Part 1 by Connie Mae Inglis

Memoir has become a popular genre in the last ten years. If you walk into any bookstore, you’ll find a number of memoirs on the “Top Ten” books of the month. It seems anyone and everyone has a memoir—from Prince Harry’s Spare and Christine Sinclair’s Playing the Long Game to Elizabeth A. Trembley’s graphic memoir, Look Again, and our own Bobbie Junior’s The Reluctant Caregiver.

So, why the increase in memoirs on the book shelves? Well, I think it’s about connection. As human beings, we want to feel connected to other human beings. We want to know that we are not alone in this world. But the recent lack of connection within society, the breakdown of nuclear families, and the isolation caused by COVID, has left the general population wanting and lonely.

Enter memoir. Why? Because great memoir, even good memoir, reminds us that we are connected. So, no matter where we are or what we’re doing, we can always pick up a memoir to read to remind us that we’re not alone.

I listened to a recent interview with memoirist, Elizabeth A. Trembley. She said, “People come to read memoir to see…what did you do to not just have your story happen to you, but to have it become meaningful because your experience [as the author] is going to be a model as they [your readers] think about their own experiences.”

How do we write great memoir so that it’s meaningful and helpful as a model for readers? What makes a great memoir? These are two questions I sought answers for over a year ago when I felt God calling me to write memoir.

My publisher, Colleen McCubbin, recommended the book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-standardized Text for Writing and Life by Marion Roach Smith. Her expertise led me to take her courses, listen to her webinars and podcast and, of course, read her recommendations (I’ve now read over 50 memoirs). If you’re wanting to write memoir, I recommend learning from Smith’s expertise.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from her, and others, about what memoir ISN’T and what memoir IS:

  1. This quote by Smith is my first point: “Memoir is not about you. It’s not about what you did. Memoir is about what you did with it.” In other words, it’s not an autobiography. It’s not your life story, but rather it’s a piece of your story that focuses on a specific area of expertise.

Take Bobbie Junior’s book, The Reluctant Caregiver, for example. The story is one chunk of Bobbie’s life at a time when she is suddenly forced to care for the mother who disowned her as a teenager, and who now has dementia. As the reader, I’m wanting to see how Bobbie, the now-expert, handles the situation and then apply it to my own life. I become intimately connected to the universal theme that is illustrated by Bobbie’s story. And that makes a great memoir.

  • Memoir isn’t someone else’s story, though someone else’s story could be intertwined in the telling. But the perspective is yours—not someone else’s—on something that happened to you. So, it’s written from a first person point-of-view.

Meg Kissinger’s recent memoir, While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence, is a perfect example of this point. While Kissinger does include her sibling’s stories, the perspective is always her own—on how she viewed family life.

Let me add an important note here: If you are including other’s stories, you must always get their permission to do so.

As this is only Part 1 of two parts, I will stop here with an important reminder. If you want to write a good memoir, you need to read as many books in that genre as you can. And while you’re at it, critique as you read: Is this a good memoir? Why or why not? What is the focus and is it relevant to me? Is it universal?

You get the picture. Take up the challenge. I’d love to read/hear your thoughts.

Connie Mae Inglis has a passion to share stories. She has spent much of the last 30 years in Southeast Asia with her husband and children, serving as a literacy specialist, teacher, and editor. This cross-cultural living has fed her curiosity and given her lots of material for telling stories, always with the desire to offer restoration hope. Since the publishing of her novel, Rewriting Adam, Connie has started writing a memoir and, as a pre-cursor, published a podcast titled, “Born on a Bridge.” You can find Connie at:

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