What Defines a Memoir? What Is Narrative Nonfiction?

Merriam-Webster defines a memoir as follows, “a written account in which someone (such as a famous performer or politician) describes past experiences, or a written account of someone or something that is usually based on personal knowledge of the subject.” So, how does that differ from a biography or an autobiography? Once again, turning to our expert above, a biography is the story of a real person’s life written by someone other than that person,” whereas, “an autobiography is the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself.” Obviously the lines can get blurred, but quite often, an autobiography spans a person’s lifetime whereas a memoir tells a story about a certain time period in someone’s life.

French Illusions recounts my story in 1979 when I traveled to France to become an au pair for a wealthy family in the Loire Valley. Using my diary as a guide, I wrote down the events in chronological order and then expanded on them, using a narrative nonfiction style also known as creative nonfiction. This technique concentrates on the storytelling, employing methods often used when writing fiction, such as character building, story arcs and foreshadowing of events to come. Dialogue or “white space” on pages is encouraged along with expressive interjections to enhance the conversations and make them more interesting. Emotional cues, scattered  throughout the book, add depth. “Pulses race” and “guts tighten” when people get excited, frightened or angry.

It took three years and untold hours to complete my memoir and, recently, I added a final chapter to enhance the ending. I’m proud of the result. I hope my readers enjoy my efforts.

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