Because we will be exposed to both the diary and the memoir as literary genres in the upcoming months when Center Stage Theatre presents “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Wayne County Reads discusses Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated,” I want to explore these forms to discover their differences, origins, and characteristics.
While both diary and memoir are subgenres of autobiography, diaries are daily records of one’s observations, feelings, experiences while the memoir is centralized and specific, focusing on important events to support themes or reasons the memoirist sets down these details. Autobiographies differ because they span one’s entire life. One source differentiates biography and autobiography as “stories of a life” while memoirs tell “stories from a life,” the touchstones and turning points the writer or memoirist shares.
Definition of memoir
Many sources trace memoir to the Latin memoria, meaning “memory” or “reminiscence.” Wikipedia points out that Julius Caesar was an early memoir writer with his “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” (“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”). From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance when Margaret of Valois was the first woman to write her memoirs, the form has flourished. From the Latin to the French mémoire the memoir has a rich history, the French being some of the notable memoirists. Those of you who attended the Arts Council’s November 2018 production, “Vet Stories,” heard war memoirs, and many among us have read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” so the memoir is familiar. In his history of the memoir, journalism and English professor at the University of Delaware Ben Yagoda says that total sales in the categories of personal memoirs, childhood memoirs, and parental memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. In Britain, memoirs were bestsellers in seven out of 10 nonfiction hardcovers in 2007 and 2008.
Characteristics of the memoir
One dictionary defines memoir as a record of events written by a person with intimate knowledge of them based on personal observation. The literary memoir, according to a dissertation, consists of three components: the autobiographical, the sociographical, and the episodic-biographical. A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust points out that memoirs are not personal narratives or single moments; instead, “they are about the plot lines or patterns that bind these moments together.” It quotes Virginia Woolf who said, “A memoir is not what happens, but the person to whom things happen.”
The memoirists “must not only discover the moments of their lives but also the meanings in those moments.” One .edu site (ednet.ns.ca) lists some characteristics of the effective memoir:
•It focuses and reflects on the relationship between the writer and specific persons, places, animals, or objects.
•It explains the significance of that relationship.
•It leaves the reader with impressions of the subject of the memoir.
•It limits a specific phase, period, place, or behavior to develop the focus fully.
•It uses first-person point of view.
•It includes conversations (dialogue).
•It may employ flashback.
•It uses vivid details.
Qualities of an effective memoir
The same source addresses other features of the memoir, including the effects on the readers, who can envision the action, imagine the setting and relationships among the characters, enter the world of the memory of the writer, understand the events of the story, and learn something about life by reading about a life.
The memoirists are the main characters who reveal their thoughts and feelings, reactions, and reflections; they slow the pace to allow the readers to enter the story and live in it with them; memoir writers are not reporters because they are being subjective, revealing their own truth; the memoirists may invent details that fit with a specific memory and their purpose in writing the memoir; the memoirists present a deliberate conclusion, a decision about an impression to leave with the readers. Sometimes the memoirist acknowledges that one version of truth conflicts with another’s memory of events. Another source supports this quality by pointing out that the details of a memoir do not have to be 100 percent accurate. Allowances are made for the embellishment of or lapses in memory.
Types of memoirs
Another source labels the memoir as “creative nonfiction narrative.” It lists these types of memoirs: the confessional, the personal, the portrait memoir (written by someone other than the actual person but based on the experiences of someone who has documented them); the professional (for example, military leaders, politicians or sportspersons writing about their time in their profession), public (celebrities whose goal is to have readers know them in a more personal way), the transformational memoir (shows a dramatic change), and the travel memoir.
Wayne County Reads chose another memoir, “Night” by Elie Wiesel early in 2006 and another memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver in 2014, so the choice of Tara Westover’s “Educated: A Memoir” is timely. Westover uses two epigraphs, one from Virginia Woolf and one from John Dewey, American educator and reformer. From Woolf: “The past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
In fact, Westover relates a horrific past with her family that ultimately rejects her. In an Author’s Note, Westover writes that several names used in the account are pseudonyms because her family members are still alive, among them the brother who was physically violent with her and her bipolar father who intones, “The Lord has called me to testify. He is displeased. You have cast aside his blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming.” Westover’s father is reacting to her decision to attend Brigham Young University. The link between education and Westover’s salvation of herself undergirds this epigraph from Dewey: “I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.”
Rush to the Wayne County Public Library or a bookstore or online sources to begin reading “Educated: A Memoir,” the Wayne County Reads choice for 2019. Like all memoirs, it reveals tribulations and redemptions relevant to our lives.
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to email@example.com.