An autobiography is the story of a life
          Memoir, on the other hand, is a story from a life."

                      ~Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir

                                 "Memoir is an icon of experience."
                                                  ~Peter Gilmour, author of The Wisdom of Memoir

                                                               "As I listen to your story, I learn and grow in ways I do not yet know."
John Kunz, reminiscence and life review scholar


Philosophy of Memoir

Philosophy of memoir begins by asking fundamental questions about the memoir art form. Perhaps there is no better place to begin than with the question, what exactly is memoir, and how does it differ from autobiography. Four quotations regarding the nature of memoir give us a clue for answering this question.

-Memoir is “as personal as fingerprints, as open and free as the sky, and as vivid as one’s imagination has the capacity to be.” [1]
-“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, This is what I went through, this is who I am,   and maybe you can learn something from it.” [2]
-“An autobiography is the story of a life…. Memoir, on the other hand, is a story from a life.” [3]
-“Memoir is an icon of experience.” [4]

Although they may use different language, each quote refers to three fundamental characteristics of memoir: its point of origin, its relatively narrow time frame, and its unlimited depth.

Point of origin: A personal art form, memoir employs the first person (singular) point of view and explores not so much what is fact as what is true, especially the emotions, meaning, and significance of events as they ring true to the author.
Narrow time frame: Memoir is different from autobiography in the sense that autobiography attempts to cover an entire life, whereas memoir explores a segment or theme from a life.
Unlimited depth: This is perhaps the most significant characteristic of memoir. The narrow time frame of memoir leaves ample space to explore issues and events in depth. As Nancy Zuwiyya, retired high school English teacher from New York state, explains, memoir “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.” [5]

Memoir v. Autobiography. At a quick glance, memoir and autobiography look like twins, since their points of view are identical. The two art forms employ the same first person (singular) point of view to write about the author. However, the similarities end there. Memoir, knowing its limitations, is far more moderate. It lets go of autobiography's grand aspirations of telling a factual life story in order to relate instead a segment from the author's life. But memoir sacrifices breadth to gain something significant, unlimited depth.


1. Maureen Mackey, “10 Great Memoirs to Read,” online. See Accessed 5/13/2009.
2. Jeannette Walls quoted in Joe Kita, “The Story of Your Life” in Reader’s Digest, January 9, 2009: 145.
3. Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir, Second Edition (Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press, 2002) 22.
4. Peter Gilmour, The Wisdom of Memoir: Reading and Writing Life’s Sacred Texts (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s
Press, 1997) 17.

5. Nancy E. Zuwiyya, “Memoir,” online. See Accessed 3/13/2008.

Fine Art Memoir
This memoir type utilizes truth, contexts, and all the tools of storytelling on a narrow segment of the interviewer’s life. Annie Dillard in An American Childhood (1987), for example, writes about her early life from five years old to the time she knew she would attend Hollins College in Virginia. Kathleen Norris, on the other hand, explores in Dakota (1993) not a time period but a theme in her life—how the Great Plains evoked for her powerful spiritual experiences (she subtitles the book, A Spiritual Geography). The fine art memoir represents the type of memoir published in recent decades, the writing in these books extraordinarily sensitive and candid as well as complex and expressive, witness the Dillard and Norris books and the Pulitzer Prize memoirs Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt and Personal History (1997) by Katherine Graham. These memoirs and others like them are the reason why the 1998 statement of William Zissner, author and former Book of the Month Club editor, appears today as prophetic: “This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Every one has a story to tell, and every one is telling it.” [1]

No process or to-do list can describe how to write a fine art memoir. The old saw still applies: robust writing results from the 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration of the talented writer. For most of the sisters’ interviewers, the writing may conclude with the functional memoir. However, a few interviewers will write both works, the functional memoir to record more events and stories of the sister’s life and the fine art memoir to explore with the tools of storytelling one significant segment of that life. The functional memoir often precedes the fine art work to supply the sister’s background and voice from which the second work grows. An example of a fine art memoir follows (segment of first scene only). Written by Dan Vaillancourt for illustrative purposes, the memoir of Sr. Joan Frances Crowley works with the motto she employed throughout her life to deal with the people around her. She said frequently, “Every human relationship involves an eternal responsibility.” The first scene addresses her life as Dean of Student Residence at the all-women Mundelein College in Chicago, Illinois.

From Chapter 1: God Wants Me Here

I could be lippy with the best of them, especially the boyfriends of the Mundelein College girls. No boy ever got the upper hand on me. I remember one boy when I was Dean of Residence at Mundelein—I think it was in the late 1970s. He was visiting his girlfriend in Coffey Hall one night, and he stayed about 30 minutes past visiting hours. The woman on duty at the front desk reported him to me. “Sister, Carmela’s young man hasn’t checked out yet.”

You know, the girls themselves through their elected representatives had decided on the visiting hours (and curfew), and so I expected them to abide by the rules. I marched up to the third floor, and knocked on the room door. The laughter inside the room drowned out my knocking, so I tried again, this time louder.

“Come in!” The voice was deep and strong, Carmela’s voice for sure.

I leaned close to the door and said, “It’s Sister.” I liked to let the girls know who was on the other side of the door in case they needed to straighten out the room or themselves a little.

After a few seconds and some ruffling noise inside, the door opened but not too wide. Carmela was a lovely Italian girl, a few inches taller than I, with coal-black eyes and matching hair falling in waves over her shoulders. She was dressed in black Jordache jeans and a red Mundelein sweatshirt. Her boyfriend was wearing gray sweats, and he was sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. It was a typical dormitory residence with two of everything—beds, desks, chairs, and closets. He smiled up at me and said, “Come on in, Sister, and join us.” You would think he owned the place.

“Carmela, dear, my lower lip is trembling.” I touched her arm as if to underscore the point. “It’s past visiting hours.”

Before she could respond to me, her boyfriend—I think his name was Andrew—said it was all his fault.

I noticed another girl in the room, Carmela’s roommate Betsy Buntz. She was sitting on the lower bunk against the wall, looking at everyone. If Betsy was there, it meant that Carmela and Andrew were behaving themselves.

Andrew, mind you, never stood up to greet me. Instead, he challenged me. “Sister, what if I refuse to leave?”

Read entire text here

In sum, memoir loves digging deep for details, attempting to uncover a depth in the secular experience where the sacred manifests itself. To do this, memoir limits its focus to a narrow life experience, and then mines the experience with true statements presented in real-world contexts with the dramatic tools of storytelling. The first scene of the Sr. Joan Frances memoir, for example, covers one evening of her life as Dean of Residence at Mundelein College, though she held the position for nearly two decades. This narrow focus permits deep digging, such as the dialogue and details of a later scene with Betsy Buntz. Sr. Joan Frances could not recall what exactly she said to Betsy 30 years ago, but she could have engaged in the little banter about her imaginary chef Maurice, since he regularly made an appearance in her dialogues with students (truth predominates over fact). Other details surface in the contexts of the late 1970s, including clothing (“narrow-legged jeans”) and speech patterns (Betsy’s halting speech for a medical problem that was untreatable at the time). This scene also moves beyond memoir as functional art to memoir as fine art with the extensive use of the tools of storytelling, for example, plot development (will Betsy find a boyfriend?) and expressive language (“my life would be free as a breeze and filled with games”). Hopefully, memoir dug deep enough in this life segment to unearth the sacred character of the experience (the seed of eternity planted in the relationship with Betsy).


1. William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Revised Edition (New York: Mariner Books, 1998) 3.

Functional Art Memoir
This memoir type requires a close partnership between the interviewer and interviewee to assure accuracy of voice, truth of content, and relevance of contexts, the tools of storytelling being less important. Thus, the memoir evolves gradually as the transcribed pages move between the two persons after each interview. On the one hand, the interviewer writes the memoir in the first person point of view and voice of the interviewee (as if the interviewee were writing it) to establish greater immediacy to the memoir and greater intimacy between readers and the memoir’s central character. Some of the other operations the interviewer performs on the verbatim script to create a memoir include the arranging of the material in chronological order, the inserting of historical and cultural details as appropriate, the organizing of the material into accurate sentences and complete paragraphs, and so on. This work aims at presenting on paper the events and anecdotes of a living and unique human being in the voice of the person. On the other hand, the interviewee relates the stories and then edits the script each week to assure accuracy of detail and voice. The memoir represents, in the end, the written legacy of the person’s life and work.



Why is this type of memoir an example of functional art? Throughout the millennia, as far back in Western Europe as 30,000 BCE with the limestone figurine of a woman known as the “Venus of Willendorf” to today with the sleek design of the automobile like the Lexus SC 430, human beings have fashioned objects for utility and beauty. The “Venus of Willendorf” honored female fertility, whereas the Lexus SC 430 promotes mobility with style and comfort. A similar rationale applies to the memoir. Some memoirs aim for beauty and function, the beauty of expositional clarity, organization, coherence, and detail, as well as the function of preserving the events, stories, and wisdom of a living human being in the voice of the person. The following example, the first page of Sr. Therese Von Holdt’s memoir written by Nesreen Tawfic, represents an excellent segment from a functional art memoir.




My Family History. I was born on May 17, 1925. It was the same day that St. Therese of Lisieux, fondly referred to as the Little Flower, was canonized. Hence, I was baptized Mary Therese. I grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression, and that gives one a whole different set of values. I always felt I never had much financial security but had much security emotionally.

My father was originally from Colorado. He only had schooling to the fourth grade and then helped at home. His father came from Hamburg, Germany, which was a very anti-Catholic area, and he had no religious orientation in his young life. He met my grandmother at the hotel his uncle owned. She was the head cook at that hotel. He moved to the United States and through the Homestead Act procured a plot of land in Norton, Kansas. After he was settled, my grandmother came and they were married. After a few years they moved to Denver. My mother was born in Remus, Michigan and was raised as a Catholic. Her parents were from central Germany, moved to the United States, then settled in Canada, and finally moved to Michigan and acquired a farm in Remus, where they raised ten children, the youngest of which was my mother. My mother completed grade school and then went to business school.

My Family Life. I was called Terry at home and Mary in school. I am the second youngest of six. There were Ruth, Dick, Bill and Jack. Then there was my sister, Barbara Jean, who died of pneumonia when I was a baby. Then there was Bob and I. Bob and I were considered the babies of the family, because of the six-year gap between the first four and the two of us. When I was five years old my father was not working because of the Depression, and my parents were having a difficult time providing for us. My aunt Pauline, who was working and had a six-room apartment on Winthrop near Sheridan Road in Chicago, invited all of us to live with her.

I once asked my mother, “Why did Daddy come here from Colorado? It’s so beautiful there.

She answered, “For a job.” You see, Chicago was the center of opportunity for work. My father always had great curiosity, even though he had limited schooling. Later on he started teaching at the Art Institute and was a commercial artist. He had no training for it but observed a lot. One day he and I were talking and I told him, “Daddy, you are one of the smartest men I know.” I admired him because he did not let himself vegetate. He always believed that he would find answers.



Memoir and the Brain
Until the 1960s, when older adults repeated stories of past experiences, popular culture colored these adults with the pall of encroaching senility. But psychologists and psychiatrists like Robert Butler, Erik Erikson, John Kunz, and Gene Cohen learned from their clinical work that storytelling was an essential component of aging, often permitting older adults to settle accounts, to heal wounds, and to re-affirm the meaningful work of their past lives. In the second half of life (50+), the brain even goes through a process of “mapping,” which supports and encourages storytelling.



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