Friday Speak Out!: Revisiting What I Believe about Memoir

Friday, April 05, 2019
by Nancy Freund Bills

It was July in 2001. I was annoyed. The leader of my summer workshop on the coast of Maine was an obnoxious editor from New York; he persisted in telling us about his difficulties with his computer and comparing them to being hit by lightning. I knew about a man being hit by lightning. The narcissistic idiot also made snide remarks about memoir versus non-fiction and fiction. My reaction was to feel fiercely protective of memoir.

On the last day of the gathering of aspiring writers, each was given two or three minutes to read an excerpt of his or her work. We were instructed to be ready to read so that one piece flowed into the next. My turn came early so I had the opportunity to listen carefully to the mix of fiction and non-fiction, almost indistinguishable. As a psychotherapist, I was surprised to observe that the fiction writers seemed to be writing about themselves and exposing their secrets every bit as much as the memoir writers. Sometimes more. Listening to the chosen excerpts without a pause between them, the stories seemed refreshingly honest and much alike. Later, after my anger cooled, and I had time to reflect, I wrote a statement about what I believed about memoir. It follows:


A memoir is a glimpse of authentic life. Often inspired by brief moments of experience and attached to powerful emotion, the initial focus of the writer of memoir may be a vulnerable juncture in life. In the act of creation, the writer may travel backward and forward from a pinpoint along a lifeline expanding with associated experiences.

The writer is often compelled to record personal history out of both pain and pleasure. The product is predictably bittersweet, poignant, and at its best, surprisingly human, surprisingly universal. Filtered through the lens of time and emotional distance, the memoir often offers an emblem of the individual’s private philosophy.

Memoir has the potential to be the most intimate genre in literature, and in my experience, it is the intersection where nonfiction and fiction both meet and dissolve.

When I came across “What I Believe About Memoir” which I wrote years ago, I was curious to learn if what I had expressed with such certainty and fierceness would hold up. Were my statements accurate? Did they still ring true to me? I looked to my own memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss.

The “lightning accident” was an explosion on my lifeline, on my family’s lifeline. Definitely, a juncture. And my readers assure me that my story, so unique, reminds them of their own losses and grief. Because of them, I have come to believe that my memoir, a story of surviving the many and often devastating lightning strikes of life, is experienced as universal. My title, The Red Ribbon, is my emblem. And my memoir contains non-fiction facts, traditional memoir stories, and fictional embellishments.

I still feel fiercely about memoir. And The Red Ribbon? It’s true.

* * *

Award-winning writer NANCY FREUND BILLS is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker at Concord Regional Hospital in New Hampshire and Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, and as a psychotherapist at Green House Group, a group private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire. “The Myth,” Chapter 19 of The Red Ribbon, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. Her first book, The Red Ribbon: A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, comes out from She Writes Press on May 28th. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), she lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats. Find her online at
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Nancy--Memoir is my favorite genre to write, along with my favorite to write. I like the rawness. The honesty. The window into the writer's life.

Some of my favorite memoir authors are Rick Bragg, Mary Carr and Anne Lamott. I'm curious: who are your favorite memoir writers?

Good luck with your upcoming book.

Theresa Boedeker said...

Memoirs are one of my favorite genres to read. And yes, they contain many of the same elements as non-fiction. Love your thoughts.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Nancy: Wow. I just hopped over to Amazon and read the synopsis of your memoir. My god, I probably would've slugged that editor for being so insensitive and saying what he did. Your memoir sounds powerful, and memoirs about loss, grief, and survival are among my favorites. I'm writing one myself...rather slowly. :) Congratulations on your forthcoming publication! I love She Writes Press, and I'm adding your book to my TBR pile. Memoir is my favorite genre, and I agree, it's the most intimate genre.

Wonderful post. :)

Renee Roberson said...

I don't think I've ever heard the genre memoir described more brilliantly. It is something I've only recently began dabbling into, and sometimes I hold back from letting my voice be truly authentic because of fear. Thank you for sharing this with us and I will definitely be checking out "The Red Ribbon." I'm so sorry for all you've had to endure in one lifetime.

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