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Introduction

While sorting out the question of whether my work-in-progress, My Mother’s Money, is a memoir or a family history, I became intrigued by several thoughtful posts on Virginia Lloyd’s blog addressing this and other questions about what does and what should qualify as memoir. So I invited her to discuss the distinction further here.

Perhaps her descriptions of these two genres that sometimes seem to overlap can help you decide if you’re engaged in memoir writing or family history writing. Knowing the difference could be crucial to the way you tell your tale or your role as narrator or character—as well as how appealing your work might be to a publisher and the public.

- Lynette Benton

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Are You Writing a Memoir Or a Family History? 5 Tips to Help You Tell Guest Post by Virginia Lloyd

What makes a true story about family a memoir instead of a family history? The contours of memoir, seemingly sharp for many years, are blurring. The genre’s definition is losing shape as it groans under the weight of the associations and expectations we assign it. For memoir, grey seems to be the new black and white.

I think there are as many different types of memoirs as there are authors willing to create something unique. And with the intense competition for editors’—and readers’—attention, unique is essential.

Here are some thoughts about the differences between writing a family history and writing memoir. I’d love to hear yours.

– A family history, by definition, is purely about a family.

It documents the lives and relationships of several members of one family. A memoir, however, can be about almost anything, including family members past and present, but it is not necessarily a history. No one would consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a family history; yet the main characters are her immediate family members.

– A family history implies a long time period.

It covers at least three generations, let’s say, whereas the best memoirs tend to focus on a specific moment in the author’s life. Alternatively, family history could focus on a significant object, such as a family heirloom, or a house, tracked through a number of generations. Either way, the memoir author’s lens is narrow, while in family history it is wide.

– A family history is self-referential.

By this I mean that the author’s attempt to recreate the world of the family is an end in itself, exploring and illuminating the dark corners and forgotten characters from the past. Unless you come from a public family or have some extraordinary historical figure lurking in a previous generation, there is little to connect the reader to your characters.

By contrast, a good memoir is both highly personal and universal. A memoir should enlighten the reader about something larger and more complex than its author. It should attempt to illustrate aspects of human experience that have not previously been explored, or are presented in a fresh and unexpected way.

– In a family history, the author is a historian, and not necessarily a central character. In memoir, typically (but not always) the author is a central figure. The author of a family history could include information on characters who might not be relevant to a memoir written by the same author. This reflects the changing point of view from relatively external (family history) to internal (memoir). Of course, the objectivity of a family history author will always be open to debate—especially by members of the author’s family.

– A family history is less commercially viable than a memoir—unless you’re a Kennedy or have a relative who’s a serial killer.

If you’re still unsure if you’re working on a memoir or a family history, ask yourself why the family figures you’re writing about mean so much to you. What is it about your grandfather, sister, or great-aunt that refuses to go away, even when you’ve so many other things to be doing and writing about? If you can find the emotional core of your passion for the subject, then you are probably writing a memoir. You’re just not quite sure what it’s really about yet.

Virginia Lloyd is a memoir coach and the author of the memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. She blogs at www.virginialloyd.com and tweets @v11oyd.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids (including the additional resources in the comments under that post).

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8 Responses to “Memoir or Family History? A Deeper Look at the Differences”

  1. Shirley says:

    Thanks for this post–a timely one for me. I am reviewing a book that fits the definition of family history, and I plan to link to this article to help my readers understand the difference.

  2. Thanks Shirley. I wonder if a manuscript begins as a family history and ends as a memoir, or vice versa. My ms seems to waver. I don’t think I’ll know for sure what it is until I reach the end. But I’ll be sure to “sell” it as a memoir.

  3. This writing novice (that would be me) finds this post very interesting. Funny thing, I just started writing about my father tonight…now I’ll need to ponder whether I am writing a family history or a memoir. I suspect it will take me years to figure out, and years to write something that invites readers to be curious and engaged. I’ll keep trying though!

    Lynette, your posts and guest posts are always incredibly informative and interesting. Thank you.

  4. Enjoyed the discussion. I also like the memoir definition that makes it greater than the author. Recent discussions seem to focus on the “me” of memoir.

  5. I know what you mean, Stacy. In a memoir, we’re all looking (I hope) for wisdom that’s larger than the writer’s personal story.

  6. Thanks so much, Terry. (Somehow I think I’d better nag you about getting your memoir—or maybe family history—started in earnest. Maybe during the summer . . .)

  7. [...] and memoir coach Virginia Lloyd recently offered five defining distinctions between the genres in this post on Lynette Benton’s [...]

  8. Your comment here inspired me to take a look at your interview with the author of Emma. I can’t wait to read the book—and get back to reading your blog regularly. Thanks for the “reminder,” Shirley.

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