Memoir: Writing About People
I remember my grade school librarian Miss Peabody…She was very tall and very thin and there was always a ribbon or scarf tied around her head from which bubbled lots of silver-gray curls.
(Joe Brainard, I Remember)
A memoir is a personal history: the past from your point of view. The writer of a memoir aims to engage their readers – whether those are family, whanau, friends or a wider audience.
A good memoir is more than just a flat recounting of names, places, and events. The writer needs to bring these things to life.
In the quotation above, Joe Brainard describes interesting physical details of Miss Peabody. After just those few words, we have a vivid mental image of her.
Here’s another famous memoirist, Frank McCourt, in his book Angela’s Ashes:
“I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.”
There’s a whole lot going on here. We already know the Frank (the child telling the story) is growing up in Catholic Ireland. Comparing Dad to the Holy Trinity shows how immersed in Catholicism he is. The details of the father – the paper, the stories and prayers, and the smell of whiskey – economically show us a complex character and relationship through the eyes of a child struggling to understand.
When writing about the people in your life, past or present, bring them to life by choosing distinctive details of their character, dress, or habits. You can use physical description, or a simile like Frank McCourt, or perhaps some dialogue if that illustrates who they are and how they behave.
Help your readers form that mental picture of the person you knew.
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