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Autobiographical Genres

auto + bio + graph = self + life + writing (from the Greek)

A genre is a literary form. There are many genres that are autobiographical in nature. In other words, the writer writes about his or her own life. Here are some of the various genres that are considered to be autobiographical.

autobiography, confessional, credo, diary, journal, letter, log, memoir, personal essay

All of these would generally be considered to be nonfiction. However, there is sometimes a fine line between autobiography and fiction. For example, a book called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is actually a fascinating work of historical fiction that follows the life of a slave through her freedom and eventually to the end of her life. It depicts actual historical events, but it is written as fiction, despite the title. Sandra Cisneros' book, The House on Mango Street, presents a similar situation. The story is Cisneros' personal story of her own life, but it is told through a fictional character.

Definition of Memoir

A memoir is a piece of autobiographical writing, usually shorter in nature than a comprehensive autobiography. The memoir, especially as it is being used in publishing today, often tries to capture certain highlights or meaningful moments in one's past, often including a contemplation of the meaning of that event at the time of the writing of the memoir. The memoir may be more emotional and concerned with capturing particular scenes, or a series of events, rather than documenting every fact of a person's life (Zuwiyya, N. 2000). For example, Homer Hickam, Jr. has written several memoirs about his life, including October Sky (formerly Rocket Boys) and The Coalwood Way. Both cover his high school days in Coalwood, West Virginia. They are full length books, but the scope of time is brief compared to Hickam's entire life and all the events of his life. Click here to read more definitions of memoir.

Characteristics of the Memoir Form

... Focus on a brief period of time or series of related events
... Narrative structure, including many of the usual elements of storytelling such as setting, plot development, imagery, conflict, characterization, foreshadowing and flashback, and irony and symbolism
... The writer's contemplation of the meaning of these events in retrospect
... A fictional quality even though the story is true
... Higher emotional level
... More personal reconstruction of the events and their impact
... Therapeutic experience for the memoirist, especially when the memoir is of the crisis or survival type of memoir

Bibliography of Memoirs
(For more memoirs, search on using key word "memoir." )
Accidental Journey: A Cambridge Internee's Memoir of World War II by Maryk Lynton
All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs by Elie Wiesel
Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
Angeles Crest: A Memoir by Michael Modzelewski
Appel is Forever: A Child's Memoir by Suzanne Mehler Whiteley
Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian
Black Ice by Lorene Cary
Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self by Rebecca Walker
The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams by Nasdijj
A Boy Called H by Kappa Senoh (Japan from a boy's eyes, WWII)
The Circle of Hanh: A Memoir by Bruce Weigl
Clear Springs: A Family Story by Bobbie Ann Mason
Colored People: A Memoir by Louis Gates
Days of Grace: a Memoir by Arthur Ashe
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dinubuqye Bauby (France)
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (Rhodesia)
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray (rural Georgia)
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (Siberia, 1941)
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston
Finding Fish by antwone Quenton Fisher
The Girl with the White Flag by Tomiko Higa
Honkey by Dalton Conley
I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann (Kenya, 1960s)
If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O'Brien (Vietnam)
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
Manhattan Memoir by Mary Cantwell
My Sense of Silence by Lennard J. Davis (growing up with deaf parents)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (includes the big accident)
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Kenya, 1930s and 1940s)
Out of Place by Edward Said (Palestine)
Red Scarf Girl by Ji Li Jiang (1966, Cultural Revolution, China)
The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway (Australia)
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer (source of the 1996 movie)
Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missle Crisis by Robert F. Kennedy
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
This Tiger's Tale by Fran Angeline (Binghamton, NY)
The Unwanted by Kien Nguyen (Vietnam)
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
West with the Night by Beryl Markham (Kenya)
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Zoya's Story by Zoya

Check back again. More titles will be added. search
Here's another definition written by Dr. Beth Burch, a professor of education at Binghamton University. It is from her book, Writing For Your Portfolio (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999).

Characteristics of the memoir form: another perspective
  ... explores an event or series of related events that remain lodged in memory
  ... describes the events and then shows, either directly or indirectly, why they are significant
  -- or in short, why you continue to remember them
  ... is focused in time; doesn't cover a great span of years (that would be an autobiography)
  ... centers on a problem or focuses on a conflict and its resolution and on the understanding
          of why and how the resolution is significant in your life

Do memoirs tell the truth?
According to J. A. Cuddon, "An autobiography may be largely fictional. Few can recall clear details of their early life and are therefore dependent on other people's impressions, of necessity equally unreliable. Morever, everyone tends to remember what he wants to remember. Disagreeable facts are sometimes glossed over or repressed ...." Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 1991. The English novelist Anthony Powell said, "Memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that."

Writing the memoir

To write a memoir, begin by brainstorming on paper all the events you can remember from your life that were either very important to you in a positive way, or very important to you in a negative way. Talk to other members of your family to get ideas, help you remember events from when you were small, and to help fill in the details that might have been forgotten. Select the event, or series of related events, that seems most interesting to you right now. Brainstorm again but in more detail, trying to recall names, places, descriptions, voices, conversations, things, and all the other details that will make this turn into an interesting memoir. Work at this notetaking stage for a few days, until you feel you've got it all down on paper. Then begin to write. You will be surprised to see that even more details begin to appear once you start to write. For your first draft, write quickly to get all your ideas down from beginning to end. Don't worry about editing. Before you revise, share your first draft with someone in the family. Consider their response, but go with what feels right. Rewrite, and then start editing as needed. Good memoirs are about everyday things, but they are interesting, sometimes just as interesting to read as a good novel. But remember, a memoir is supposed to be true, so be careful not to exaggerate or embellish the truth.

For a book on writing the memoir, consult William Zinsser's Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1998).

Read the opening of a memoir
  "Digging" by Andre Dubus
Inkspell is maintained by Nancy E. Zuwiyya, English teacher in the Binghamton City School District, Binghamton, New York. Inkspell and all its pages are copyrighted 2000-2003. Please e-mail any inquiries, suggestions, or corrections.
Read an excerpt and a review of this memoir by Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker.
Back to Inkspell's Home Page
"Art of the Memoir" from Writers Monthly,
an online journal column that explores the author's own writing in memoir pieces,
reviews other writers' memoirs, and examines the meaning of memoir as a genre       
Autobiographical Genres
Bibliography of Memoirs
Definition of Memoir
Do Memoirs Tell the Truth?
Read the Opening of a Memoir
Writing a Memoir
This page was last updated on: March 19, 2006