Memoir of portraiture

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by Andrew Szanton

This is by no means a complete list of memoir types. Most memoirs are not one pure type, but a hybrid. But these are three intriguing memoir types.


In a memoir of portraiture, the author tries mainly to paint portraits of people, places or things. If these people, places and things are already famous, the author is filling out or correcting existing public images. Memoirs of portraiture have a focused, finished quality. In writing this kind of memoir, study how the public now perceives your subjects or themes. Do you intend to amend or correct those perceptions, or to take advantage of them? If the subjects of your memoir have no public reputation, realize that however vivid they are to you, your readers know nothing about them, and don't yet understand why they should. Work to create full portraits, sharp with detail. Look for humor in your story. In reading your drafts, ask yourself: As a reader, would I want to meet these characters? Would I want to visit these places? If the characters and places are not yet compelling enough to make you answer "Yes," then deepen them. Most memoirs of portraiture have little moral quality; they are meant to educate, but not in moral terms.


Growing Up, by Russell Baker.

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

Home Before Dark, by Susan Cheever

In a memoir of confession, authors seek mainly to unburden themselves of a powerful, guilty secret. Perhaps a family member was abusive; perhaps they achieved success through callousness or fraud. Somehow their private thoughts or behavior have been painfully separate from their professed values or those of the dominant society. The memoir of confession is always an intimate moral portrait. Well-handled, it can be riveting. In writing this kind of memoir, work hard to make evil familiar, and harsh deeds understandable. In reading your drafts, ask yourself: Do I understand why everyone in this story acted as they did? If not, dig deeper into the motives of those who remain obscure. The best memoirs of confession are works of moral education, startlingly specific, but also timeless and universal. In writing a memoir of confession, don't wallow in evil, or in self-pity. Be specific. Work hard to clarify your feelings and to reach a satisfying, definite conclusion. The deeper and darker your memoir's secrets, the more your readers will yearn for clear insight and a strong resolution.


Confessions, by Saint Augustine

Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown.

This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff


Like the memoir of portraiture, the exploratory memoir probes the past; but unlike the memoir of portraiture, it probes in a gentle, perhaps unfocused way, with no promise of resolution or conclusion. It treats the past and human motives as if they are fundamentally a mystery. This kind of memoir aims to throw out evocative clues, to suggest intriguing hypotheses, to stand back from the material, and wonder. The exploratory memoir often lacks the rounded portraits of a memoir of portraiture, or the high drama and firm conclusions of memoirs of confession or self-justification. In writing this kind of memoir, make sure your drafts are neither vague nor boring. Some readers dislike this kind of memoir for not "coming clean" or "taking a stand." But at its best, the exploratory memoir often makes other memoir forms seem contrived. Many memoirists come to believe that the exploratory form is the most honest way to convey the past. It treats your readers with respect, allowing them to reach their own conclusions. Exploratory memoir also tends to be gentler on your characters, and when these characters are honored family relatives or living collaborators this is often a crucial point.


The Road From Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
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