Memoirs: what they are, characteristics, definition, how to write memoirs, and authors


What are memoirs in literature?

Memoirs are one of the most important subgenres of literature in the didactic genre, being also one of the most popular nowadays. Memoirs are writings that gather experiences, memories and sensations that a person or a character lived in a literary work throughout his or her life. Many figures write memoirs in order to expose the work they have done, such as achievements, victories, etc.

Although memoirs are commonly associated with the subgenre of biography, which we have already discussed in another section, the truth is that although they are part of the same didactic genre, they differ in that memoirs have a much less formal and rigid structure, compared to biography, which stands out, among other things, for maintaining a judicious chronological order.

Meaning of the subgenre memoir

The term memory comes from the Latin -memoria-, a word formed by -memor-, the adjective referring to -he who remembers-, with the suffix -ia-, which is used in order to form abstract nouns, where together they form the meaning of the term as remembering or keeping in the mind. Hence, memoirs are a collection, in many cases, of memories, sensations and experiences of the author.

Definition of the subgenre memoir

A memoir can be defined as a type of account of considerable reliability that brings together a series of events experienced by the author or by a close witness. Some other experts define memoirs as a type of narrative about specific events, so that it is devoted to writing partially about the life of a certain character.

Definition of the subgenre memoir

What is the function of memoirs?

The intention of the authors of this type of writings and, therefore, of memoirs, consists in the exposition and recording of experiences, especially those that were determinant for the development of the personality of a close person or of themselves, as well as those that interfered in the past with the activities they carry out at present or at the end of their lives. On the other hand, the collection of memories also functions as a tool for reflection on past events and an examination of the consequences in the present.

Thus, memoirs relate a series of events that took place at a specific moment in time, not necessarily over a person’s entire life, as in biography.

History and origin of literary memoirs

Although it is not possible to know an exact date when the first memoirs were written, it is known that the Romans managed to produce a large number of memoirs that increased substantially during the Roman Empire. Thus, among the records we have are authors such as Augustus, Sulla, Lucullus and Gaius Julius Caesar, among others.

On the other hand, it should be mentioned that memoirs constituted, at the time, one of the most important documents, since they were used as a tool for historians such as Plutarch, Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Suetonius and Valerius Maximus, who used them to examine specific events that only this type of account provided them with.

Characteristics of the memoir subgenre

These are the most important characteristics of memoirs in literature:

Content: memoirs have the power to gather a great deal of information about a person in certain experiences and experiences, whether they are achievements in relation to some specific activity, mistakes, victories and so on. However, in general, memoirs gather experiential content that allows the reader to get closer to the context of the protagonist’s life, allowing him/her to understand more efficiently feelings, emotions, thoughts, interests, etc., which would not be possible otherwise.

Memoir format: the writing form of the memoir, being a story, is written in prose and unlike biography, there is not necessarily a linear concordance, but it can refer to a moment in the life of the author or the character whose memory is used for the writing. Thus, we speak of a literary work of non-fiction. It is also possible to find in its composition a recurrent use of literary figures.

Truthfulness: it should be taken into account that although memoirs are a type of free narrative, as mentioned above, they are not works of fiction, since they are attributed a truthful and most of the time reliable character about an author or character.

Protagonist: as to who is the protagonist of the memoirs, this can easily vary. It can be the memoirs of a civic, military or political figure, a social leader or a particular person who decides either to write his own memoirs or, for other reasons, it is a person close to him who is in charge of writing them.

Time of narration: another of the most important characteristics of memoirs has to do with the time at which they are narrated, given that, unlike other types of text, memoirs are usually narrated when the dated period has already concluded.

Author: about who is in charge of writing, in the case of memoirs, these can be written by the person who lives them, or by a person who has been very close to him/her and who has been his/her companion for a long period of time, so that he/she could provide the necessary information to build his/her memoirs.

How to write my memoirs?

Now that we have seen what memoirs are, how they are composed and how they are characterized, it is time to move on to how we can write our own memoirs. To do this, we need to consider the following:

Choose the story time

The first thing we will do is to choose the fragment from which we want to start the narration, this we will do personally. Deciding which will be the time that will be covered by our story of memories implies thinking about a specific period with a beginning and an end, a determining event for the development of our life.

This first step is key since the story is made up of an initial stage, the development and the end, including stages of tension that occur in the middle of the text.

Decide what to tell and what not to tell 

Although it is about evoking memory and in it is immersed a universe of memories, it is necessary to recognize that it appeals to intimacy and in this sense, the author must decide what to tell and what not to tell. There are many factors, events, decisions, feelings and so on, which may well inspire the reader from his own experiences, but there are also other moments and aspects that many people prefer to keep private.

At this point it is also crucial to keep in mind that much of what is decided or not to tell, has a great relevance in the course of the story, so if you decide to omit some aspect, care must be taken so that it does not hinder the understanding of the idea, such as data, facts, twists or other aspects.

Determine a message 

In this part the idea is to establish a focus towards which the reader will be led as he/she reads our memories, that is, the central idea of the text that will remain in the memory of the person reviewing the text. Basically, it can constitute the meaning of the text, the reason why we formulate the writing and expose it to the reader.

Although this intention should not be presented explicitly, the ideal is that the set of elements that are written lead to it, this will allow it to be consolidated as a work different from the others, thus confirming its own value.

Build a first panorama 

We cannot say with certainty what percentage will correspond to the real story, however, this does not mean that it is necessary to compromise everything. Embellishing the story is allowed and this may involve simply modifying the real names of the characters in the story, or omitting sections that we do not wish to tell as we did in the second point.

Now you can start to consider which literary figures you will use for the composition and imagine how the story will go according to the message you want to leave in the reader.

Research on the story itself 

Another aspect that we must keep in mind is that the content of the memoir should not only be based on what resides in our memory, but it is crucial to be able to do a thorough research about what was happening, also, outside our circle at that very moment and how it is involved with what happened. Even this could lead to discovering other points of view of witnesses and those present, or also reviewing other situations that had to happen to trigger the central axis of the story.

All these elements can not only enrich the story, but also nourish the path for the reader and for you, as it allows the discovery of new and inexperienced environments and dimensions that make the whole process more satisfying.

Start writing 

Now that you have all of the above ready, it’s time to get started with the writing of our memoir. Unlike other types of text, you can start the narration of the fragment of your memoir from the point you want, but not without first taking into account the central aspect that you must reach to end with a closing or conclusion. Keep the language simple, clear and pleasant, allowing the reader to connect with the story. Be sure to include descriptions and details, as this facilitates the creation of images in the reader.

Review the result 

Once you have finished writing, you can review your text. For a first revision you should take into account aspects such as writing and spelling, which is essential in any type of text. Later you can highlight the main ideas, the coherence of the written line to ensure a correct understanding and even take up some moments that have not been entirely clear to expand them.

Remember that to write good memoirs it is essential to have read other memoirs, so in the following section you will find a list of authors and works that are exponents of the memoir subgenre for you to review and take as a reference for writing your own.

works of the memoir subgenre

Authors and most important works of the memoir subgenre

Among the first authors are recognized figures such as Augustus, Sulla, Lucullus and Gaius Julius Caesar, belonging to Rome and recognized as the main exponents of memoirs, generating a large number of works of this type.

About this particular didactic subgenre, the memoirs, it is possible to find a great variety of texts and important authors throughout literature, so that we can find titles such as “Memorias de un Setentón”, written by Ramón de Mesonero Romanos, as well as “Los pasos contados”, by Corpus Barga, “Confieso que he vivido” by Pablo Neruda, “La arboleda perdida” by Rafael Alberti, among others. Also on the part of commercial works we can find memoirs written by figures such as politicians, among which stands out “Memoirs of War”, written by Winston Churchill, but also other figures such as “History of my life” by Charles Chaplin, “Memories of Africa”, by Karen Blixen, among many others.

Example of memoirs of the memoir subgenre 

The following is an excerpt from the work “I confess that I have lived”, a work of memoirs written by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, one of the most important figures in Latin American literature and world literature.

“I will begin by saying, about the days and years of my childhood, that my only unforgettable character was the rain. The great southern rain that falls like a waterfall from the Pole, from the skies of Cape Horn to the border. In this frontier, or Far West of my homeland, I was born to life, to the earth, to poetry and to rain. As much as I have walked it seems to me that the art of raining, which was exercised as a terrible and subtle power in my native Araucania, has been lost. It rained for months on end, for years on end. The rain fell in threads like long glass needles that broke on the roofs, or came in transparent waves against the windows, and each house was a ship that hardly reached port in that winter ocean. This cold rain of the American South does not have the impulsive gusts of the hot rain that falls like a whip and passes leaving the sky blue. On the contrary, the southern rain is patient and continues, without end, falling from the gray sky. In front of my house, the street became an immense sea of mud. Through the rain I see through the window that a wagon has become bogged down in the middle of the street. A peasant, wearing a black blanket, harasses the oxen that can’t go on in the rain and the mud…”