What Is a Memoir? Definition & Purpose of This Genre

POSTED ON Oct 3, 2023

Sarah Rexford

Written by Sarah Rexford

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Answering the question, what is a memoir, can set you on an inspiring trajectory. Are you wondering how to write a book based on a true story? The characteristics of a memoir equip you to tell your story, encourage your readers, and share your legacy. 

In fact, memoirs are a unique genre within nonfiction, and not just because they are about the individuals writing them. Memoirs set themselves apart by being exceptionally selfless and at the same time, immensely vulnerable.

With that said, the definition of memoir can be confusing. If a memoir includes different stories from an individual’s life, how is it different from other sub-genres of nonfiction? Feeling confident to answer, what is a memoir, is key to sharing your story in a way that resonates with readers.

In this article, I dive into answering what is a memoir, as well as elaborate on the purpose of this crucial genre. So, what is a memoir and what is the purpose for writing one?


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What defines a memoir? 

The defining aspect of a memoir is that it is a book based on a true story and pulls examples from the writer's life that reinforce a specific theme. The next time someone asks you, “What is a memoir?” you can simply say the following. “It’s a historical account written about the themes of an individual’s life.” 

Knowing how to define memoir is the first step in a process that can change your life and the lives of your readers.

However, just because your memoir is based on stories from your life does not mean it is a book about your life story. While an autobiography focuses on your life from birth to present day, a memoir uses specific events in your life to point to a particular theme. 

There are a couple key questions to consider before confidently answering, what is a memoir? The first question pertains to length. The second question asks how memoir stands out as a genre unique unto itself.  

How long is a memoir?

The length of your memoir should fall between 50,000 to 60,000 words. While there are outliers to this rule, learning how to write a memoir starts with setting the boundaries of your word count. 

If you drag your memoir on, listing every event in your life that remotely fits your theme, you will bore your readers. On the other hand, if you cut corners and your story comes in at a mere 15,000 words, you likely missed some prime teaching moments. 

How is memoir different from other genres?

A memoir is unique among genres (particularly autobiography vs memoir) because the writer focuses on a key theme while placing themselves in the protagonist role. Learning how to write a memoir – or even just get started with the memoir outline – starts with taking a look at the various lessons you have learned throughout your life thus far.

So, what is a memoir’s key differences among other sub-genres of nonfiction and fiction? While there are many creative memoir ideas and memoir examples you can use to inspire, your memoir should stand out in two ways. You should:

  • Share stories from your point of view, but avoid sharing your entire life story
  • Focus on a specific book theme and resist including chapters that do not support this theme

If you want to share key moments but you can’t share your entire life (this would be an autobiography), what is a memoir book’s purpose? 

What is the main purpose of a memoir?

The purpose of a memoir is often to inspire readers, teach a lesson, or show the author’s perspective on a specific theme. While biography vs autobiography can do this to some extent, their main purpose is to recount the entire life story of an individual. 

1. The importance of vulnerability.

Look at how the below table illustrates the definition and purpose of this genre:

What is a memoir?What is a memoir’s purpose?
A book focused on themes from an individual’s lifeTo inspire, teach, or reveal a new perspective 
A book with the author as the protagonist To vulnerably share themes from an individual’s life
A book that highlights lessons from any individual’s life, whether well-known or unknownTo use personal experiences for the benefit of readers

“What is a memoir, then?” you ask. “Can I write one even though I’m not famous?” Yes! The characteristics of memoir are to inspire and teach. No matter who knows you or who doesn’t, you as an individual have experiences you’ve learned from.

Memoirs are vulnerable. While autobiographies can cushion hard life lessons with various other stories, the purpose of a memoir is to highlight a specific theme. Consider the following themes found in memoir: 

  • Accepting change and moving forward
  • Dealing with a monumental loss
  • Making the most of a personal weakness 
  • Overcoming difficulty despite overwhelming setbacks 

Each of these themes strikes the chord of vulnerability. It’s impossible to write a captivating memoir without revealing at least one aspect of vulnerability. 

For instance, in her memoir, Educated, Tara Westover reveals she was seventeen-years-old when she first set foot in a classroom. 

Revealing this moment in her life had to take immense courage. However, her theme of overcoming would not be the same if she had not shared this vulnerability with her readers. 

2. The importance of balancing self-focus with reader-focus.

All this discussion about sharing vulnerable moments may feel a bit egotistical. After all, interpersonal conversations are a two way street. Why should you expect a reader to care about your story, especially if you’re not famous or a celebrity? 

The answer lies in balancing sharing your key life stories with putting the needs of your reader first. A helpful way to find this balance is to finish this sentence after writing a scene or chapter: 

“The reason I say this is…” 

If you don’t have a good reason for the story you just shared, you should probably cut the scene. Here are a few different answers to consider.

Self-focused:

Reader-focused:

  • To show how well I dealt with this issue
  • To look competent (when I really don’t feel it!)
  • To appear like I have it all together
  • To show how my readers can learn from my mistakes 
  • To show that even if you feel incompetent, you can press on
  • To remind readers they don’t have to have it all together (I don’t!)

Remember that sharing personal stories can be an authentic display of selflessness and vulnerability.

Using your personal life stories is not an ego move, as long as you do so from a place of helping your readers. 

Your next step after answering, what is a memoir?

Now that you’ve answered, what is a memoir, it’s time to get to work. Before you dive into writing your first draft, ask yourself the following questions. 

  • What theme most sticks out from my life thus far?
  • Who do I think will most benefit from hearing my story?
  • How can I share this theme in an accessible way?
  • Why do I want to share my story? For my benefit or for my readers?

Knowing the answers to the above will help you save time by intentionally writing to your target audience. 

To help you further along your memoir journey, here are some valuable resources:

Once you draft your memoir you can always go back and do different types of editing (in fact, you should!). Getting your initial thoughts down is key to actually succeeding in writing your memoir.

A successful memoir often relies on not just a great story, but a deep understanding of the publishing process. To help you get started, use the free resource below! 

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