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What is a Memoir?

Benefits of Writing Your Memoir

Memoirs have become more and more popular in recent years. That’s why everyone is asking: what is a memoir?

Technology has made it easier to record ourselves or our loved ones reminiscing about the past, and the result is that we see how beneficial it is – for us and our families, for our elders and youngers – to gain insight into where we come from. It provides a stronger sense of where we’re going.

The rise in genealogy services like Ancestry and 23&Me are another sign that interest in our LifeStories is on the rise. This is a great sign, because for those of us who would like to tell our stories, or the stories of those close to us, the task of how to capture and share them for many generations to come is becoming clearer and less arduous.

Keep reading to learn exactly what a memoir is, some of the benefits of sharing your story, and how you can get started on yours.

What is a Memoir?

Put simply, your memoir is the story of your life, as told by you. A lot of people wonder what the difference is between a memoir and an autobiography.

A memoir is more flexible than an autobiography; rather than covering the whole comprehensive story of one’s life, one’s memoir can be about a portion of a life, or it can focus on a theme of one’s life. At my company LifeStory Memoir, my clients always have a natural leaning toward the themes of their lives that stand out most as their fondest or most impactful memories – the stories they tell their families and friends time and again, the segments of their lives that take up the most mental real estate.

When I wrote my grandfather’s memoir for him – I interviewed him and edited his own words – a couple themes from his very storied life stood out among the rest of his narrative. The reason I titled his book Swimming Through History is because he was a competitive swimmer as a boy and young man, and his memories of those days were so fond. He spoke a lot about his training and competitions, and how he was headed for the Olympics. But the Olympics were canceled that year because of his next predominant theme: World War II.

You can learn more about my Grandpa's story and how it influenced me here.

I loved interviewing Grandpa about his insane war stories flying fighter planes in the Pacific theater. I grew up marveling at the scars on his leg, so getting the story of how flak from a projectile ripped apart his plane, hitting him in the leg, and hitting his copilot in the head, which killed him, was riveting.

What is the Difference Between a Memoir and an Autobiography?

That being said, memoirs and autobiographies really can overlap because often the memoirs I write for my clients do cover the comprehensive story – from beginning to present. An autobiography is likely to cover – usually in chronological order – the writer’s earliest memories and childhood experiences, moving up through young adulthood and laying the groundwork to illustrate how the writer became the adult they became.

All lives are unique, but a general outline might move from young adulthood to schooling, military, falling in love, family, and career. Emphasis can be given to whichever theme is most important or impactful to the writer, but the comprehensive approach that is an autobiography versus a memoir will cover all or most of the writer’s life components.

There is no clear differentiation between a memoir and autobiography. But a good approach is to think of the autobiography as evenly distributing the writer’s major life segments, whereas the memoir emphasizes a time in life or a theme. (I’ll add here that a biography is someone’s story written by a third party, whereas memoirs and autobiographies are written by the person who lived the story.)

Some of the Best Memoirs of All Time

The memoirs I write at LifeStory are generally for families to enjoy as legacies. If you’re looking to read some classic bestseller memoirs and fantastic memoir examples, which can be used as models when writing your own story, these are some of my favorites:

  • Growing Up, by Russell Banks

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

  • The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

  • My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Benefits of Sharing Your Story in a Memoir

The benefits are innumerable, and studies have been done that prove it. The financial firm Edward Jones did a recent study that found:

  • 73% of Retirees and 85% of Young Adults agree that

    • Passing on Stories, Memories & Advice is more important than gifting money

  • Additionally, many in healthcare now refer to memoirs as

    • Narrative Medicine and

    • Reminiscent Therapy

Sharing stories is beneficial to the Storyteller. They experience:

  • A sense of comfort knowing that their story is captured forever

  • Emotional epiphanies and connections

  • Health benefits

  • Mental stimulation

  • Social engagement

  • Renewed purpose

Sharing stories is beneficial to the Family. They experience:

  • Understanding their family history and where they come from

  • Advice and lessons from their elders that help them cope with life’s ups and downs

  • The joy of hearing their favorite family stories again and again

  • The privilege of knowing relatives they never met or really knew in person. Knowing their ancestors helps them know themselves.

  • Strengthened family bonds

Tips for Sharing Your Story

If you are ready to begin the noble and awesome project of capturing your LifeStory in a memoir, here are a few tips to help you get started:

  1. Create a Table of Contents, or a high-level list, of the major components of your life. A hypothetical example might look like: Youth, Early Hobbies and Talents, School and Friends, Mischief, Sports, College, Early Career, Young Love, etc.

  2. Start with the stories you always love to tell. As I say above, my grandfather talked incessantly about swimming and his experiences in World War II. He also loved to talk about how lucky he considered himself to have found the love of his life in my Nana Marilyn.

You’ve told these stories a million times, so start with the low-hanging fruit.

3. Make a list of the most important people in your life who you want to make appearances in your

book. Now write one favorite memory of a time with each of them.

Writing a memoir, or a book of any kind, is certainly a daunting task, but having a clear understanding of what a memoir is, and a few steps you can take to begin, is a great place to find yourself.

To reiterate a few key takeaway points:

  • Memoirs and interest in Family Stories and LifeStories are on the rise

  • Technology has made it easier to capture our stories

  • A memoir is the story of your life as told by you

  • The difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that an autobiography usually gives equal attention to the components across your entire life, while a memoir often focuses on a specific timeframe or theme

  • Good writers read; if you want to write a good memoir, read good ones

  • The benefits of capturing and sharing your story are many, for both the people telling the stories and the ones receiving the gift of those stories

  • To get started, write the memory you tell most often

If you are looking for help capturing your story or a loved one’s story, or you have already begun but need help moving to the next stage, please reach out to me.

To see examples and learn more about our process, philosophy, and how we can help you, visit my website,

Richard Squires is a memoir writer living in New Jersey. He has written forty-plus memoirs and published fiction and book reviews in myriad literary journals. His company LifeStory Memoir helps people keep their family stories alive forever by writing their memoirs.

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