Forms of Memoir

1st November 2023
7 min read
7th February 2024

Authors Shelley Davidow and Paul Williams break down the various forms of memoir. 

Writing the Radical Memoir

Life writing is the general category of personal ‘true life’ writing that broadly encompasses all the forms of memoir writing, where the reader/writer contract demands that the writing is ‘true’ or ‘factual’: creative non-fiction, autobiography, biography, memoir, diary, travel writing, autobiographical fiction, letters, collective biography, poetry, case history, personal testimony, essay, memoirs. The form tends towards realism and representation in detail, what happened when, to whom and how. 

Creative non-fiction is an even broader category of ‘true life’ writing that need not even be personal story – an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a tweet. The main characteristic in this form (that first appears to be a contradiction in terms) is that the content is non-fiction, the form creative. There is a myriad of creative techniques that can be used to write non-fiction, such as dialogue, setting, character, plotting and narrative arcs. 


An autobiography is literally ‘self-life-writing’. Generally, autobiography is thought to be a comprehensive, whole life story from birth to the present day. If your grandfather is writing his ‘memoirs’ he is writing autobiography. Philippe Lejeune was the first to help make memoir and autobiography respectable and it was he who established the ‘reader/writer contract’ and wrote the ground rules. He defines autobiography as ‘the retrospective record in prose that a real person gives of his or her own being, emphasizing the personal life and in particular the “story of life”’ (Lejeune 1982: 193) 

Fictional autobiography/autobiographical fiction 

Fictional autobiography uses the form and conventions and guise of autobiography to tell a fictional story. Charles Dickens often used this form, for example, in the novel fiction David Copperfield (1849) which begins with the chapter ‘I am born’. Autobiographical fiction, on the other hand, is a combination of autobiographical and fictional writing, using the writer’s real-life experience but making it into a story that looks autobiographical. 

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984) is a good example of this blended genre. Freefalling (Davidow 1992) is an autobiographical young adult novel that loosely follows the author’s experience of growing up in a multi-racial household during Apartheid South Africa and the death of a childhood friend. The element that sets autobiographical fiction apart from memoir is the fact that although elements of the story are held to be from real experience, there is no reader/writer contract that is expected to be fulfilled, nor can it be easily broken. 


A memoir is a sliver of your life. It’s a song with a theme. Whereas autobiography attempts to cover the whole of the writer’s life, memoir tends to focus on one theme or strand of their life. It is autobiographical, it is life writing, it can be creative non-fiction, it can be a diary, poetry, letters, collective but it is a particular focus, and its timeframe is limited. You could write several memoirs about your life, and they could all be completely different in theme and subject matter. Memoir draws on techniques from all forms of life-writing, and it does not necessarily promise an ‘as it happened’ realist version of a segment of human experience. Memoir strives, above all, for emotional truth. Memoirs were originally the domain of famous people, and typically written by (or ghost written for) celebrities and politicians and were autobiographical, but some celebrity memoirs, for example, Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018) and more recently The Light We Carry (2022), focus on a specific theme rather than an entire life. Memoir, however, is no longer a celebrity genre has now become the domain of the ordinary person and allows us to express aspects of our lives, insights or themes that others will find interesting. 


Memoir arose out of a form called memoirs, which were comprehensive recollections by prominent figures, for example, Alfred Von Tirpitz’s My Memoirs: Recollections of a World War I German Grand Admiral (1923), a hefty 600 pages of history around the First World War. Memoirs nowadays have negative and ageist connotations, sometimes written by wispy-haired war veterans, often self-indulgent, nostalgic and past-glorifying, and sometimes nothing more than diary or journal entries without a directed theme or focus. The term ‘memoirs’ has largely gone out of common use. 

Radical memoir 

The radical memoir challenges and questions the assumptions readers and writers may have of the memoir genre. For example, can writers break the so-called reader/writer contract and still call the work a memoir? Can a writer move beyond the binaries of fact/fiction? These questions emerge out of other valid questions such as: do we actually remember things accurately and who gets to say what is true? What is memory? Is it a recall of data stored unchanged in some part of the brain, or is every memory an act of recreation of an experience? Who is the final arbiter of the claim that ‘this really happened?’ And more radically, does that matter and to whom and why? A writer writing memoir might be driven to explore one of the most fundamental questions of human experience, which is: what is the self? And do we reflect on and capture that self as we write, or do we create it as we write? Examples of radical memoir are scattered through this book, as they tend to break conventions and defy expectations of what we commonly regard memoirs as. For example, Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) questions notions of memoir and deconstructs the genre as he writes it. Lisa Taddeo’s bestselling novel Three Women (2019) is a finely crafted literary memoir that blends aspects of autobiography, biography and investigative journalism in her ground-breaking pursuit of the breadth and scope of selves, and the meaning and cost of female desire. 

Writing the Radical Memoir uses salient theories about memory and the self to challenge assumptions about how we remember and tell the truth of our lives when we write about it. Innovative in approach and making new critical ideas accessible, each chapter maps out the key principles of such writers as Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Philippe Le Jeune and Joseph Campbell, invokes literary examples to show how other writers have mastered the idea before reflecting on how you can practically apply the theory to your writing. With original exercises and prompts for further reading that bridge the gap between the theoretical and how it might be put into practice, the book is attentive to the multiple facets of the genre of nonfiction writing.

Writing stage