The Narrative Elements of Memoir Print
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The Narrative Elements of Memoir

First, some definitions. Memoir (or autobiography) contains stories about one’s life, usually on a very particular focus—a pivotal year after college; an affair and its aftermath; a relationship between mother and daughter. It’s impossible to write one’s whole life story; instead writers find a focus and then tell stories about people, events, or phases within that focus. Narrative refers to telling a story, the temporal sequence of how events are related to one another in time. Pacing is the technique by which we vary the passage of time, that is how slow or how fast we make the time pass dependent on the particular element of narrative writing we use, page by page.


In Autobiography: A Reader for Writers, Robert Lyons says that autobiographers and memoir writers choose from a spectrum of possible ways to represent the passage of time when writing about experience. The spectrum has two poles which are far removed from each other: “narratives that comment extensively on experience and narratives that present experience directly.” This is a good definition for our purposes here in discussing memoir and narrative time. It says basically that most memoir writers in order to tell about their experience must use narrative but they can use it in different, sometimes radically different, ways.

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What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir.

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