This week, I had a sudden urge to analyze a short memoir.
So, I hit the web and surfed for some of the wackiest, most descriptive and heartfelt memoirs I could find. Two hours later — and after using up all my free monthly articles for NYT and New Yorker — I found three pieces that stuck out against countless others. Why? That’s what I wanted to know.
After critically examining these memoirs, and asking myself what made them so compelling, I pinned down my answers to three key elements.
But first: what is a short memoir?
If a book-length memoir is a slice of the author’s life, then a short memoir is a moment. I love short memoirs for their ability to capture a flash of a moment in complete brevity, while still being so undeniably truthful. The author is trying to share a moment, just a flash of an event, and let readers take away something from that without being preachy. In Lily Blackburn’s article on memoirs, she writes, “Memoir is how we write a narrative of a particular part of our lives, a space of excavation into parts of ourselves rearranged in story form in a way which renders the mess of our memories—art.”
The key elements and analyses
Key Element #1: Specificity
from Analysis #1: Don’t Eat Before Reading This by Anthony Bourdain
I first read Anthony Bourdain’s piece in the summer; it has stuck with me to this day. One reason being its specific, funky descriptions that shaped the reading experience. Without the specificity, this piece would have just been bare-bones (excuse the pun), and you can’t expect a chef to write that.
Specificity can exist within both external and internal descriptions. Just like in a fictive narrative, specificity in a memoir can provide readers with more to sink their teeth into. Since they haven’t experienced your memories, being specific with your diction and the details you choose can make readers feel like they were there with you. Consider the following excerpt from Bourdain’s piece:
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger — risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.
I’ll admit that a good half of this is chef-jargon, but it’s specific, necessary chef-jargon that builds the scene and linguistic environment. With these words, you are transported into the head of Anthony Bourdain, complete with the delicious food and **even more delicious words. Here’s another example, however this time, much smaller and easier to integrate into your own narrative. Bourdain writes, “I came into the business when cooks still smoked on the line and wore headbands.” These two details offer more visceral imagery for readers to picture, in a way that they might not have been able to if Bourdain had just listed a date. After all, we are not all wickedly good cooks and literary geniuses like a certain someone was. By using specificity, we can bring readers into memories they have not experienced, and make them relate.
Key Element #2: Memory
from Analysis #2: My Dad Tried to Kill Me With An Alligator by Harrison Key Scott.
As writers, we want to tell our story as close to the truth as possible. But memory is spotty and faulty; it’s hard to remember every detail as it was.
When writing a short memoir, think of yourself as an artist. More specifically, a cartoonist. The actual happening of the event is like a photo reference; it’s the real version. The finished short memoir is the drawing. As the cartoonist, you are trying to replicate the original image but you have to exaggerate certain areas. Likewise, in a short memoir, certain areas must be exaggerated or omitted to fit the narrative. It’s not about replicating every detail, but about bending certain details when necessary to serve the greater picture.
In his article about memory and memoir, Robert Atwan — the founder and editor of The Best American Essays series — writes about the importance of understanding memory to pursue memoir writing. “The operations of memory being as essential to memoir as, say, metrics is to poetry, the more we know about memory—from psychological, philosophical, and scientific perspectives—the better we can understand the complex art of memoir.”
One short memoir that uses memory to its advantage is Harrison Scott Key’s, “My Dad Tried to Kill Me With An Alligator”. Key writes about his adventurous father who continuously forced Key and his brother to take risks — for fun.
The memory works well here: readers are asking themselves if Key’s father really tried to kill his children with an alligator. The answer is no. But it’s the way that Key exaggerates the risky adventures of his childhood in a way that will hook readers. I mean who doesn’t want to read a short memoir with a title like this?
The final conclusion I’ve reached after analyzing these short memoirs and researching is not to make your short memoir true to the objective version of the event. Instead, aim to make it true to your memory.
Key Element #3: Intention
from Analysis #3: How Long Have I Got Left? By Paul Kalanithi
This summer, I hunted out as many nonfiction books as possible to diversify my reading tastes from contemporary or literary fiction and grammar books to something more. Again and again, Google recommended When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. So, naturally, I had to pick up a copy from the library and devour the book in two days. This memoir, although not short, does have several excerpts from the book published online. So when I came to my urge of analyzing memoirs earlier this week, I knew Kalanithi’s short memoir would definitely be included.
The excerpt of “When Breath Becomes Air”, titled “How Long Have I Got Left” is an excerpt of the book’s prologue — one of my favorite parts. Kalanithi uses all the elements of a good short memoir, despite the online one being only an excerpt. But, what came out the strongest to me was his intention: to live. After reading the book, we know he intended to live, find the meaning of life, study, write and share his story but even without that context we know he wants to live. We can see that clearly reflected through the last passages of the short memoir:
I am now almost exactly eight months from my diagnosis. My strength has recovered substantially. In treatment, the cancer is retreating. I have gradually returned to work. I’m knocking the dust off scientific manuscripts. I’m writing more, seeing more, feeling more. Every morning at 5:30, as the alarm clock goes off, and my dead body awakes, my wife asleep next to me, I think again to myself: “I can’t go on.” And a minute later, I am in my scrubs, heading to the operating room, alive: “I’ll go on.”
Every short memoir I’ve read so far has an intention, whether it was Bourdain talking about food and sharing his life as a chef, Key humorously talking about the dangers of his childhood or Kalanithi telling his story of being a patient as a doctor. Your intention does not have to be serious, grand or revolutionary but it must be there. Your reader does not have to learn or take anything from reading your short memoir, but that does not mean you should ramble endlessly because you have a life. Say what you have to say, but do so with purpose and intention.
These are the three crucial elements of short memoirs that I took away from analyzing them. They’re certainly not the only thing that makes a short memoir worth reading, but I think they play a good part. Utilizing specificity, memory and intention can take your short memoir from being good to great.
Now, most of the short memoirs I picked are borderline personal essays, too. It’s hard to distinguish the line between a short memoir and a personal essay. They’re both short and personal. Personal essays tend to be more philosophical musings while holding the same conventions of an essay while short memoirs can be more light-hearted with no groundbreaking message, and can go as long as 30 pages while still being considered “short”. That’s not a hard and fast rule, however, so I just like to think of the two as a spectrum rather than a piece being completely one or the other.
Keep on the lookout for an article with separate and full versions of the analysis of each memoir that will be up on my blog sometime soon.
first ventured into the world of writing with her sister. Since then, she has gone to explore different genres and styles: short fiction, literary fiction and most recently, non-fiction. When she’s not writing she can be found spending time with family, going on walks, or watching the latest grammar videos. Follow her on Instagram @mashalashfaqofficial.