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What Makes for a Great Memoir?

May 16, 2011 | Updated Jul 16, 2011

Are memoirs fact, fiction or a combination of both? It depends on how seriously you want to take them. Considering I can't always remember my exact words in a conversation I had yesterday, I find memoirs written with extensive dialogue that supposedly happened a decade ago a work of faux-fact, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying the tale.

Some might say my taste in memoirs and autobiographies range from the intense and demented (serial killers) to the cosmically abstract (reincarnation/spirit bodies). Regardless of what element I am experiencing in this voyeuristic way, I love memoirs. Why? Because they offer a rare opportunity to have an intimate look into the lives of interesting people and their experiences.

As documented in Ben Yagoda's book, Memoir: A History, published memoirs have increased 400 percent over the last four years and this statistic is what motivated Yagoda to trace autobiographies and memoirs back to the fifteenth century. What he found was fabulous facts intertwined with exaggerated selective memories. What makes them walk such a fine line depends on their purpose.

Why we love our memoirs:

  • They read like fiction which holds our creative attention
  • It focuses on a brief period of time or a series of events rather than a lifetime
  • We see the irony and meaning of the events as they unfold
  • The narrator does well to walk us through conflicts and flashbacks
  • We learn the impact of an interesting turn of events
  • We engage on a higher emotional level than if the story was being told about the author
  • We know the author survives the crisis and we want to learn how
  • Often includes the viewpoints of family members and friends to create a multi-dimensional account of the events

One of my favorite memoir is Laura Munson's New York Times best-seller, This Is Not The Story You Think It is...A Season of Unlikely Happiness. This book is quite simply fabulous. Laura's noble quest to become the source of her own happiness takes you by the hand and heart as it guides you through the steps to living a life without suffering. Her story pulls back the curtain on the only magic we ever need to know: how to make the shift from fear to love.

Other favorites include:
Shirley Maclaine's I'm Over All That and Other Confessions which shares her current point of view on everything from money, love and fame to what's going to happen on December 21, 2012. For me, reading it was like having an intimate dinner with a longtime friend.

Nancy Cooke DeHerrera's All You Need Is Love: An Eyewitness Account of When Spirituality Spread from the East to the West in which she tells the intimate details of her life, which include her friendship with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founding father of Transcendental Meditation, and their time together in the Valley of the Saints with the Beatles, Mia Farrow, Mike Love, Donovan, and Paul Horn.

Rampuri's Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India, is Rampuri's true story of moving to India at age 18, meeting his Guru and having many spiritual adventures. Today he is a highly esteemed holy man who is head of the Naga Baba sadhu's. This autobiography is filled with true accounts of magic, miracles, ghosts, and lessons on Hindu gods, a real E-ticket ride through the holy land of India.

What have been your favorite memoirs? What autobiographies have you related to or learned the most from? I'd love to add yours to my reading list!