“A memoir,” says Gore Vidal, “is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. In a memoir it isn’t the end of the world if your memory tricks you and your dates are off by a week or a month as long as you honestly try to tell the truth” (Palimpsest: A Memoir, 1995).
I like to use this Vidal quote as I try to explain the critical concept of “voice” in memoir to my students. I, of course, use examples, from picture books (that “show”in 30 pages or less, fine examples of memoir writing), to excerpts from other sources.
I also like to clarify the differences between memoir and autobiography through providing some take of the following scenario: You and your sister are having coffee in a cafe and in walks a lady who has a striking resemblance to your late Aunt Sara. You then begin to recall childhood memories of Aunt Sara, and you land upon one specific memory that involved a childhood prank. You and your sister disagree on how it went down. You say this way…she says Oh No–it happened like this…in the end, the argued-over-details remain less significant than your shared recollections of the fun you had in pulling it off, and the good-natured, laugh-at-herself-spirit of Aunt Sara. Memoir is like that. You flavor your life experiences with voice—how you remember, how you felt at the time, as Vidal says, is independent perhaps from actual dates and facts—but that your narration rings an honest truth is paramount.
Here are just some memoir resources that I use with my students:
When I was little: A four-year old’s memoir of her youth-Jamie Lee Curtis
Memoirs of a goldfish–David Scillian, Tim Bowers;
Through my eyes–Ruby Bridges
The Wall: Growing up behind the Iron Curtain–Peter Sis
When I was young in the mountains–Cynthia Rylant; The relatives came–Cynthia Rylant
The year of the perfect Christmas Tree–Gloria Houston; My Great-Aunt Arizona–Gloria Houston
These (and more) by Paricia Polacco: My rotten redheaded older brother; The keeping quilt; Thank you Mr. Falker; The lightning jar; Thunder cake
Tar beach–Faith Ringgold
Marshfield dreams–Ralph Fletcher
The moon and I–Betsy Byars
Too many tamales–Gary Soto
My life in dog years–Gary paulsen
Dakota dugout–Ann Turner
Little by little–Jean Little
Owl moon–Jane Yolen
The raft–Jim LaMarche
The house on mango street–Sandra Cisneros
Sitti’s secrets–Naomi Shihab Nye
Looking back: A book of memories–Lois Lowry
Farewell to Manzanar–Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
…and wonderful teaching texts
—Crafting a life: Teaching memoir–Catherine Bomer
—-Old friend from far Away–Natalie Goldberg, a book my son gifted me with that has been a great personal resource for my own writing. Goldberg is a “goldmine” for memoir writing–she has many books, all inspirational
So many wonderful mentor texts within which to immerse students so they capture the many possibilities for memoir writing.