To Memoir or Not to Memoir

author writing memoir hand-325321_640Authors write memoirs for a variety of reasons. The question is – does the motivation really matter? Is it just enough to share your story, or does it have to have some kind of reasoning behind it?

One popular and, I think, good reason is to share anecdotes that are funny – to make readers smile or laugh. I have read and enjoyed a few of those. The issue with humour is it can be very difficult to write well. Someone can lead a life filled with amusing incidents but unless they are written with a good comic flare they will fall flat. I’m afraid mine would never fall into that category. My attempts at humour usually result in, “Er – what?”

Another reason to memoir would be to share personal experiences or expertise in a particular area, to share information on a specific topic from an individual point of view. A member of my critique group had polio as a child and now suffers from post polio. Not many people know about post polio, so her aim is help more people understand it. This type of memoir is aimed at a niche market, at those who have, or know someone who has, experience with the particular situation or topic the memoir focuses on. These can be very helpful for both education and support.

A common type of memoir is one that centers around a life that has been unusual and interesting, or one that has taken place in the public eye. In this case, name recognition is the draw. It almost goes without saying that if one has lived a public life and has a name the public recognizes, that person will have an audience wishing to know more.

For years now, many who know me have urged me to write my memoirs. So far I have resisted, as it is clear to me that my own story fits none of the categories above. I am not famous. I have no expertise or knowledge of note on any specific topic. My sense of humour is well … let’s not go there, okay?

While there may be other types of memoirs, I personally can think of only one more. Some might call it self-help, others therapeutic, still others speak of them as healing, be that for the reader or writer. They are often highly charged and emotional, both for the author and reader.

This is the area my memoir would fit into – if I choose to write it. And there lies the rub. I am past needing to do this for myself, for my personal healing. While no one ever stops changing, growing and learning, I have been through enough therapy and life experience to have come out the other end fairly stable and self-actualized. So I don’t “need” to write my memoir for me. That leaves the last possible motivation – to write it for the benefit of others who have lived through, or are currently struggling with, abuse of one kind or another and have not yet reached a point in their own journeys that they no longer need outside support or information.

So, do I write my memoir? Or not? That decision now rests on only one question. If I publish it will it be of comfort or support for those suffering from abuse? Will it help? If it won’t then there is no point. I’m still sitting on the fence. What do you think?

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

41 thoughts on “To Memoir or Not to Memoir”

  1. Thank you for this, Yvonne. You make some good points here, but at the end only you can decide whether or not to write your memoir. Many factors come into it, some of which, like being of help to others with common experience, you’ve covered. But if you want to write a helpful book for those people, does it have to be a memoir? It might have more impact written as a novel. And you’re already very skilled at writing novels. Perhaps that is your best medium.

    I suggest this because I know of such a book – Courage to Change, by Sylvie Nickels – which, although drawing heavily on personal experience, was written as a novel. It is proving very useful to many who face, directly or indirectly, some form of addiction. She based her plot around alcohol abuse, but the message it carries is equally valid for other forms of addiction. I can see parallels with what you appear to have in mind, so it might be worth reading Sylvie’s book before you make up your mind.

    There are also other reasons for writing memoirs. I wrote (and am still writing) my African Memoir series as a legacy and also to provide a memorial for people and societies fast disappearing from the modern world. The stories are not really about me, or what I did, although I was a bit part player in events recorded. But they are about people I knew and lived amongst, about tribal groups whose environment and culture is vanishing before our eyes and who, without a record like this might fade into the obscurity of history unrecognised and unremembered.

    I’d like my grandchildren (and their parents for that matter, as they weren’t around during the period I’ve written about) to be able to read about them. I’d like others who may have heard of the places where those events took place, but who never saw them face to face, to be able to dig a little deeper, to marvel at the richness and complexity of what is too often discarded as primitive society. And I’d like my readers to be able to step outside the mundane boundaries of their own comfortable lives and share the excitement and interest of something beyond their experience, something real, vital and rich with colourful cultural energy.

    Memoirs serve like preservatives, every bit as much as being curative, helpful, or self advertising. Long live the genre!

    1. ‘Memoirs serve like preservatives’. I love that description! Some of the most popular memoirs in the UK at least have been those that are not written by celebrities or people with a ‘message’ – Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’; Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ and the like. Sometimes we just need to have those things which we value – the mundane, the commonplace – held up for contemplation, and these books do it in spades through the sheer quality of their writing. They are life-affirming and I think there is still a place for new ones like them. They preserve the fragile idea that most of the world, most of the time, is, even now, a beautiful place.

      1. I like the ethos, Alan but I’m not sure about most of it being a beautiful place. Of course some bits are to each of us, even if others son’t find them so. All the same, I’ve covered some pretty disgusting things as well as those that interested me in my writing in order to put the stories I wanted to tell in their correct context.. But I agree that even those have a life affirming element.
        You’ve raised an interesting perspective. 🙂

      2. Thanks Ian. The Ebook has been particularly successful. In fact, my next novel is largely based on my late husband’s life: including as a pilot in bomber command, sole survivor of an air crash, mountaineer, sole survivor of an avalanche amongst many other things.

  2. While I agree with your classifications and reasons for writing a memoir, I believe there’s something else less tangible about it. My father wrote his autobiography over the last 20 years of his life; after he died, I published it with lots of pictures thrown in. I never expected to sell any, but surprisingly, it does sell on occasion. For some reason, it does touch others although most of the time I am unaware of the connection. Eventually, I would love to write my own memoir and attach it to his, and I still hope my son might take up the pen and follow on. I think it would make for a very interesting retelling of 150 years or so.

  3. Good post Yvonne. I have no need to write about my own life, but that of my husband has been very interesting and I’ve thought about writing bits and pieces of it in one of my novels. I love to read memoirs, but only if they are funny, hold my interest, or is a self-help book, just as you have mentioned. That being said, recently I was in the library looking for something to read and found an unusual book by a local man who was a school teacher. Turns out he not only was a teacher, but my husband’s school teacher!! While I found the narrative a bit dry in places, the subject was interesting because once I began reading and several areas of our county were mentioned, I showed it to my husband and he realized it was his teacher from grade school. This is an older book, by the way. I don’t understand why I even picked it up, but am glad I did.

  4. Ironically, the first book I wrote began as a memoir. It quickly became apparent that there wasn’t a chance that anyone would want to read it (I was driving a limousine, selling real estate, and painting houses; not exactly a household name), so it morphed into my first novel. Maybe that might work for you?
    Either way, good luck with yours. Writing a memoir is something everyone should endeavor to do, whether they publish it or not.

    1. I never set out to write memoirs, just to tell the stories of others I had rubbed shoulders with along life’s journey. It was my publisher who pointed out they are memoirs.To me they were just books I needed to write for the reasons I gave above.

  5. One type of memoir you didn’t specifically mention is the travel memoir.It isn’t a form most people think of when thinking of memoirs. I’ve been pondering how it fits in your classifications. It kind of fits, at least usually, in the expertise or personal experience classification. But its appeal is, at least IMO, a combination of that classification (there is often some kind of personal growth), but also the unusual life classification where the appeal is to experience something vicariously. If I ever write a memoir, it is almost surely going to be one of these.

    Thanks for getting my brain rolling this morning. 🙂

    1. This gives me a lot to think about in relation to my African Memoir series. Some involve journeys, although I’ve never previously thought about them as travel books. But they are about remote places across the continent, and societies, tribes and individuals who are fast disappearing under the wave of ‘progress’ that the 21st century has brought. Maybe I should reclassify them.

  6. My first writings were philosophical essays about some of my experiences. I’ve had a lot of unique opportunities in my life from spending time with Timothy Leary one-on-one at his invitation, mining amethyst that is in 29 museums around the world, doing 239 book reports in 2nd grade, being the first in the nation to take mentally handicapped scouts to summer camp in the 60’s as my Eagle Scout service project and breaking new ground as a bonsai artist creating new forms of bonsai revolutionizing that art’s several thousand year history. I’ve written 21 of these essays out of an outline of more than 60. Meanwhile I’ve become a traditionally published author with a New York agent and recently signed a contract with Story Press to write my 3rd book, Craft Wines, about my more than 30 years experience as a winemaker creating 139 different wines, only 4 from grapes.

    I’ve written 21 essays out of an outline of more than 60 and am currently having them edited. I see this as a series of several books with a working title of Hunting the Wild Quantum: The Adventures of a Hillbilly Savant. Hillbilly Savant is a title given to me by a Harvard professor who gives titles to significant people in his life and is also the title of my Facebook author page which many here have liked. My agent doesn’t think she can sell this memoir unless I become famous or self publish and demonstrate impressive sales. That is why I became a devoted follower of IU to learn about self publishing. I value this group and everything I’ve learned here. I recommend this group to everyone who approaches me about wanting to become an author.

  7. What a fascinating life. I’m glad IU has been helpful in getting you out there with your work. That’s what we’re here for.

    Now I’m curious about what drives you to do so many different things. I’ll bet you’re eternally curious, have boundless energy and become easily bored. 🙂 Keep writing about it all. There is an audience for you.

    1. Thank you Yvonne. I was lucky to be born with a high IQ, intense energy and drive with a great family situation and location. My older sister was an award-winning grade school teacher(now a professor) who taught me to read and love reading before I went to kindergarten. I still read several books a week.

  8. I’m not sure where my own memoirs fit. They are the same, structurally, as a romance novel – boy meets girl, loses girl, finds girl again.

    As you said in a comment above, though – I am glad I wrote them. They made me a writer, which is what I had always wanted to be.

    Good post!

  9. I wrote a memoir thinking my life might be interesting reading for persons interested in Big Band Music of the jazz-swing era. My dad played the trumpet in several famous bands. A literary agent informed me, “Without celebrity and platform in your own right, forget it.” So I wrote a novel about a protagonist being forced into becoming a literary agent by a biker-poet (knowing that poetry was generally unpopular among literary agents (Amazon: Slush Pile Inspector). Several books later, I returned to memoir writing and published to amuse and offer advice in (Amazon: Miss Williams).

  10. Well, if you’re looking for votes, I’d definitely say to write your memoirs. Even if you don’t publish it for the world, I think memoirs are incredibly valuable within the family structure. They convey so much about a person, about their life that, even when we know a person decently well, we might not have known.

    I think about Melissa discussing publishing her father’s memoir. I’m sure that was a fasinating read for her. Because, as a child, you know your parent in one context, but when you get to see them pre-you, it’s always fascinating,too.

    In tribal cultures with oral traditions, there is generally a person who is charged as the tribe’s storyteller, the person who is the guardian of their stories. The person learns of the great people and the great stories and passes on that information freely when asked. I think in cultures that have become more dominated by the written word, people often fail to ask for the stories, the way they once did, or they don’t have the time to sit around and hear as many stories. Memoir is a way to take that story that is you and preserve it. And when you sit down to write it, it jogs your memory and stories you hadn’t thought about in years emerge, things your family has never asked and you never thought to tell. So, I think memoir is great for preserving that.

    1. And it’s a good idea to write them down now,while you have the opportunity, in case nobody asks. Then they will at least have your written words to fall back on and fill in a few of the gaps when, after you’re gone, they have one of those ‘I wish I’d asked my Mum or Dad about that’ moments.
      Everyone has life stories in them. You make a good point about the memory of oral tradition. 🙂

  11. I’ve been thinking along the same lines. I have used my personal experience to shape my commentary on my social media blog (“Are People Really That Stupid?” at but only recently thought about putting it all down. I never thought my life was interesting enough, but who knows?
    I seriously considered writing a travel memoir, because I’ve done some interesting travelling, but without a good hook, that goes nowhere.
    Face it, anything of the memoir type needs a good hook. And if you’re writing about yourself, the hook has to be real, not just created for the sake of hooking the readership.
    I think the difference between you and me, Yvonne, is that nobody else is telling me that I should write my memoirs. If you have a lot of people urging you, you ought to consider it. I think, with your experience as a writer, once you get started you’ll get a feeling whether it’s going anywhere or not.

    1. I think you should write your memoirs, Gordon. Don’t worry about the hook until you have got everything down on paper. It often emerges from the murk on its own during editing, when you can reshuffle events and leap ahead to grab your readers’ attention, then step back to the chronology.

      I did that with one of my books, Dust of the Danakil, and it seems to have worked. My wife said surely it didn’t happen like that? Recently we had a visit from two people who where in the desert with me and shared most of the events. When she asked Mike, he said “It most certainly did, I saw it all.” The whole book took on new meaning.

      Go for it, Gordon! Write your memoir. 🙂

  12. I understand your reticence, Yvonne, but the fact that you survived to become a fulfilled, happy individual is a message of hope to those who are still struggling. If you can bear to do it, then do it.

      1. Just write the memoir, Yvonne. You can decide later whether to publish or not. The process is very rewarding (and often therapeutic, if you’re worried abut raking over old sores) and in many years from now your descendants will bless you for leaving them something which may explain some of the things they never thought to ask you while you were still with them. Write it! 🙂

  13. Thanks Ian. I meant to say how much I’ve enjoyed your African memoirs – bringing us into an African world that may never exist again. Do get on and finish them!

    1. That would take another lifetime! I have another under way and still have a pile of notebooks that are virtually untouched, so watch this or some other, space! 🙂

    2. It would take another lifetime to finish them, Sylvie. There is still so much to remember, but I’m still scribbling and will keep going until whenever. Your encouragement always helps spur me on to write a b it more. 🙂

  14. I missed the initial surge of comments, Yvonne, but I wrote a small book that would fit into the “memoir” category, titled A Day Out with Mom.

    I originally wrote the book as blog posts when I was unexpectedly called to live with my parents–for 7 months. After writing about 20 posts, I realized I had the makings of a book. The chapters are short and were really ways for me to understand the process of helping my parents and dealing with all the business and pressures of caregiving. I wrote in several voices: mine, each of my parents, and from an objective perspective. It was a great writing experience, not to mention a means of really re-connecting with my family.

    Speaking to Big Al’s comment on travel memoirs, this last summer I began doing some overnight bicycle touring around my hometown. I’ve been blogging some of those experiences. Travel writing is quite a balancing act–how much “then I went there by Road Z,” and how much description of both the environment and my inner thoughts.

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