blogger: Cynthia Ruchti
Memoir: Mem-oir, or ME-moir?
How do you pronounce memoir, anyway?
It’s not a question of how to pronounce the word, although many of us do wonder. Is it MEHM-wah or mehm-WAH or MEHM-wahr?
None of the above, technically. The European pronunciation is much more charming (go figure) than the English (well, American) pronunciation. Both syllables are apparently given equal weight: Mem-wah (EU) or the coarser mem-war (US), according to the Cambridge Dictionary. But if you hail from Illinois or Wyoming but are holding a croissant while saying it, you can probably get away with the softer and more sophisticated mem-wah.
Is my book a memoir?
Brian A. Klems (Writers Digest) and others make the distinction that a memoir is typically centered around either a season, event, aspect, or theme of a person’s life. An autobiography, in contrast, may encompass the person’s life story chronologically. “In some general contexts,” Klems says, “memoir and autobiography can be used interchangeably…But there’s a key difference that publishers use to define each—the timeline covered in the writing.”
A firefighter may write his memoir focused on his years in that noble but high-risk profession. Or his story might be his experiences fighting a specific fire. A lawyer may write a memoir about her most chilling case. Or she could create a memoir about her years as a public defender. A foster parenting couple may write a memoir about their overfull-house and the changes they were able to bring to the foster parent conversation.
What do I include?
Once the question is answered–“Is it a memoir or an autobiography?”–the next question is typically, “What stories do I include in my memoir?” If it isn’t asked, it should be. One of the most concerning traps for a memoirist is the idea that it all has to be told. “I need ever detail so it will be an accurate reflection of what really happened. And that begs a new question. Are you writing a mem-oir or a ME-moir?
If you’re writing for publication, a memoir is about you but for the reader.
That distinction will guide many decisions during the writing process.
- Where do I start my memoir? With a story that matters to the reader.
- Which details do I include? Think of the memoir as a collection of integrated, related scenes. Think about incorporating elements that form gripping scenes. The trip to the lake that one summer when you caught a trout? Might not be necessary. The trip to the lake another summer when you caught a spy hiding in the boathouse? That’s necessary. Unless it’s completely unrelated to the rest of the memoir about your life as a missionary dentist.
- How do I decide what to leave out? It’s simple, really. Leave out anything of no interest to the reader. You’re welcome to write down every minute detail, rambling and disjointed thoughts…if you simply want to capture it in writing for yourself and a few family members. But if you’re writing for publication, carefully scrutinize the story from the reader’s point of view. Every chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence, word.
Will it add to the reader’s enjoyment, understanding, education, experience, enrichment?
Why does it matter?
The skilled memoirist continually asks, “Is this a ME-moir? A story both about and for me? Or is it a true mem-oir, a story of memories that woven together form an important work of literature, an informative read, or inspiration for others?”