The importance of Memoir–capturing memories through writing

“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

Woodsong–Gary Paulsen

…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.

Honoring great writing!

If you are a teacher, and seek fabulous samples of quality writing, here’s one for you. I love this blog piece (from another wordpress blogger) for four reasons: 1–The obvious–it’s simplicity and flow kept me engaged; 2-The writing is first person, and first person writing samples should be presented to students as often as you can find them; 3-It’s writing of a place—some of our best writing centers on a place–perhaps a place we know well, or a place, as in this blog entry, we anticipate with fervor, and 4–Great example of digital writing where photography speaks as loudly as words. Perhaps you will share in my delight with this link below, and find possibilities in sharing, as well, with your middle grade students.

Bog at the end of the world