Since ancient times, memoir sub-genres have been written, read, and passed down through the generations. One of the earliest memoirs to note was by Julias Caesar, Commentaries On The Gallic Wars. He used his memoir as a way to portray his experiences in the Gallic Wars.
People often confuse the genre of memoir with biography and autobiography, but memoir is a genre unto itself. In fact, some of your favorite life lessons and themes are likely the highlights of memoir sub-genres.
In this article I define what memoir is, explain many of its sub-genres, and present a guide to help you identify which is best for you to write.
Ready to dive in?
- What is a memoir?
- The concept of memoir sub-genres
- Types of memoir sub-genres
- How to know which type to write: a guide
- Draft your memoir: don’t hold back
What is a memoir?
A memoir is a collection of specific aspects of an individual’s life that point to a central theme or life lesson. Sometimes, defining a biography is a helpful launching pad for understanding memoir.
- Biographies are written on an (often well-known) individual for the purpose of recounting their life
- An autobiography is written by the individual themself
- A memoir pulls specific stories from an individual’s life in order to teach a lesson or highlight a theme or concept
While biographies usually sell best when they are on a historical figure or celebrity, if you have an important lesson to teach, nearly anyone can write a memoir.
The concept of memoir sub-genres
Like most genres, memoir has sub-genres. Sub-genres are smaller genres within the larger one. Often, sub-genres focus on a specific era, time of life, or event. Below is a brief example:
- Genre: Fiction
- Sub-genre: Historical, Romance, Thriller, Fantasy
- Genre: Nonfiction
- Narrative nonfiction, self-help, biography, memoir
However, within the sub-genre of memoir there are more sub-genres.
When deciding you want to write your memoir, educating yourself on its sub-genres will help you focus your story. The best way to do this is reading plenty of memoirs and getting a feel for the type you want to write.
What you share and how you share it will depend on the sub-genre you choose to write in.
Types of memoir sub-genres
Just like when you choose to write fiction you must decide what type of fiction you want to write, the same is true for memoir. Below are nine examples of memoir sub-genres you can choose from. This is not an exhaustive list but it should get you started as you brainstorm!
#1 – Personal Event
A personal event memoir centers around a specific occurrence that transformed your life. Whether you lived through a tragedy or survived a natural disaster, you can use the event as the foundation of your memoir.
#2 – Travel
New York Book Editors defines a travel memoir as “a written documentation of the author’s awakening or evolution.” This type of book focuses on storytelling and drawing readers into the writer’s (your) personal experience. More than what you did and saw, what did traveling teach you?
#3 – Spiritual Quest
When you focus on the sub-genre of spiritual quest, you add a layer of depth to your writing. Instead of explaining occurrences and finding the teaching points or themes, you ask additional questions, such as:
- What is my purpose?
- What drives me?
- What is my hope?
This is a great sub-genre for pondering the meaning of life and sharing what you found.
#4 – Activism
If you’ve read, or watched, the inspiring true story, We Bought A Zoo, you are familiar with activism writing. Activist memoir does not need to be on-the-nose to drive the theme home. In fact, sometimes subtly is the best delivery.
#5 – Confessional
When you choose the confessional route you divulge lessons you’ve learned through trial and error. This type of writing takes vulnerability and a great deal of self-reflection. Consider Lit, by Mary Karr, for an example on how this can be done.
#6 – Portrait Memoir
Portrait writing is different from typical memoir sub-genres in that it is written by someone other than the subject of the story. Portrait memoir is often drawn from journals and diaries written by the hero of the story. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn is a classic portrayal of portrait memoir.
#7 – Professional
Writing For The Soul is 21-time, New York Times bestselling author, Jerry B. Jenkins’, professional memoir. This sub-genre focuses on the professional life of an individual. However, it adds a more personalized telling of their road to professional success. Bob Iger’s, The Ride of a Lifetime, is another such example.
#8 – Personal
Perhaps the most well-known of them all, personal memoir is the type you expect to pick up in your local Barnes & Noble or bookstore. You don’t need to be a celebrity to write in this category—simply share your personal story with a central theme.
#9 – Transformational
Arguably leaning toward the inspirational end of this genre, transformational memoir takes readers through the writer’s character arc. The late Chadwick Boseman’s memoir, Forever Our King, is one such example. Considered a late bloomer in Hollywood, Boseman left a transformational legacy that impacts the world today.
How to know which type to write: a guide
With nine sub-genres to choose from, how do you decide the best option for your story? The answer is simpler than you may realize.
Take A Step Back
Consider your life from a 30,000 foot view. What stands out? Your personal experiences? Your transformation? Your activism? What is the thread woven throughout your life thus far? View your life as if you are a reader. What would most stand out to you?
Pinpoint Your Unique Angle
Once you identify the common theme of your life, ask yourself what makes it unique compared to others who portray a similar theme. How can you best share this uniqueness? Are you naturally vulnerable (confessional memoir)? Did a major event change how you view life (personal event)?
Ask What Will Resonate With Your Audience
Professional writing is about putting the reader first. With this in mind, it’s crucial to ask what sub-category will most resonate with your readers. Does your particular audience learn best through vulnerable confession, inspirational transformation, or spiritual hope? Share your story in the way that will most benefit your audience.
Use Your Natural Voice
If you start writing your professional memoir and find yourself divulging personal information from lessons you’ve learned, you may want to take a different angle.
For instance, if this is the case, consider writing a confessional memoir with professional examples, rather than a professional memoir with confessional examples. Whatever your natural story-telling voice is, choose the sub-genre that best represents it.
Draft Your Memoir: Don’t Hold Back
Sharing your story can feel intimidating. However, don’t let intimidation hold you back from drafting your initial manuscript. Put it all down on paper. Don’t worry about flow or even structure—simply write.
Once you write your memoir from first page to last you can go back and edit parts out, add layers in, and rearrange. The important step is to get your story down. If editing feels overwhelming you can always work with a developmental editor and a line-editor later on.
Sharing your story is a bold step with the potential for massive benefits. Whether you inspire others to move forward with their dream, challenge them to activism, or share confessions from what you’ve learned, sharing your memoir is a powerful way to change lives. It’s time to get writing!