Writing Our Lives: The Shape That Memoir Can Take

Written by Pauletta Hansel, Writer-in-Residence, Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

Our 2022 Writer-in-Residence, Pauletta Hansel, is a poet, memoirist, teacher and editor. Attend her upcoming workshops and writers' office hours, opens a new window. And, listen to her as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head, opens a new window" podcast.

Am I a poet, an essayist, or a memoirist? Do I have to decide? Memories, family stories, daily noticings, happenings in the larger world, both past and present—all of these show up in my writing; sometimes as poetry, sometimes as prose.

I am not a seamstress, but my mother surely was. We would visit the fabric department at the local dry goods store and sometimes (oh, joy!) travel to a nearby city and shop in a store with aisles of cloth from which to choose. What cloth depended on what it was I wanted her to make. Rayon was her favorite for dresses, but if I wanted a coat, we’d best take a look at the heavier twill or wool.

And so it is for me, now. What I make—a poem, an essay, a hybrid mix of the two—depends on what material has grabbed me. And perhaps here my little analogy falls apart. Whereas my mother’s rules seemed predetermined, I sometimes don’t know what I am making until I start working with the cloth.

The Many Shapes of Memoirs

Even memoirs in prose can vary widely in shape (and in just about everything else!). Take Mary Karr’s Lit, opens a new window, for example. Though she is also a talented poet, Karr creates the world of her memoirs from the outside in, much as a novelist might: "Age seventeen, stringy-haired and halter-topped, weighing in the high double-digits and unencumbered by a high school diploma, I showed up at the Pacific Ocean, ready to seek my fortune with a truck full of extremely stoned surfers." Thus reads the first sentence of Lit’s Chapter 1. Character, scene, and the bare beginnings of plot.

Chapter 1 of former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s heartbreaking Memorial Drive, opens a new window, about her mother’s murder, instead begins in image that quickly moves into metaphor: “There is a large birthmark on the back of my thigh…. Though not the shape of a hand, it is the size of one, and in exactly the spot where, if you were told to sit on your hand as my mother was, you might leave a mark.” We spiral up into the story from the inside out.

And then there is Chapter 1 of journalist Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House, opens a new window which begins in history: “In the world before me, the world into which I was born and the world to which I belong, my mother’s mother Amelia, was born in 1915 or 1916 to John Gant and Rosanna Perry, a shadow of a woman about whom only scratchings are known.”

The Tools to Craft Your Memoir

But wherever a memoir might find itself on this spectrum, leaning toward poetry or toward narrative, with or without researchable facts, there are some basic tools (not unlike my mother’s sewing shears, seam rippers, and needles) which are almost always needed, though to different degrees: Story, Reflection, Imagery and (with a very light touch) Exposition. In the descriptions below, I offer examples from a “made-up” memoir (AKA fiction); I assure you the grandmother in my story was nothing like my sweet Granny!

1. Story

I am going to call the depiction of events allowing us to experience the memoirists reconstruction of what has happened as “story.” For the purpose of this explanation, there are two ways of telling a “story”:

Scene implies:

        • Location.
        • A specific time and a sense of movement across that time (not a still photo, but cinema).
        • Dialogue (usually) that moves action forward.
        • Characters (the people in your story, including yourself) embodied through physical details and voice.
        • Description: Concrete sensorial details about the world of the memoir.

Example: The sun was barely over the trees when we pulled into the long gravel drive that Sunday. Grandmother looked as if she’d been dressed in her scratchy wool suit for hours. “Late again, I see.”


Summary is the generalization of time. It may well have location, details and characters, even movement across time, at least in a more composite sense, perhaps even a snatch or two of dialogue, but it covers more ground than a scene, giving a sense of how things were more generally in one’s life at a particular time.

Example: Most Sundays we would pick Grandmother up for church. I’d start the journey half asleep, but wake when we hit her gravel drive.

2. Reflection

Unlike fiction, with the motto of “show, not tell,” in memoir you tell how you were (or are now) feeling about all this. The authorial voice often speaks directly to the reader saying, in effect: ‘this is how it felt to me; this is how it changed me.”

Example: For years I didn’t believe my friends who claimed they had grannies and mamaws who would sneak them candy and smother them with kisses and the occasional gift.

3. Imagery (Figurative Language)

As in poetry, imagery is the exploration of concrete details which occur in scenes and in summary.

Example: My conversation with Grandmother often left me with the same awkward sting as the perfunctory hugs against her stiff, scratchy Sunday suits.

4. Exposition

Last and least, expository writing is what most of us learned in school. “Get to the point. Tell us what you think.” (And what we should think.)

Example: I hated those weekly visits with my grandmother. She was mean.

While exposition has its function in moving us through factual material, it flattens both time and emotion. Too much exposition is often an unconscious attempt at avoidance, whether of work or pain.

For a discussion of memoir and a prompt to get you started, I invite you to view the recording of my recent workshop, Writing Our Lives, opens a new window. You can find examples of my own memoir writing in both poetry and prose in my book, Palindrome, opens a new window.

Writer-in-Residence Picks - Memoirs by Poets

Explore this list, curated by CHPL's Writer-in-Residence Pauletta Hansel, of memoirs written by poets.

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Writer-in-Residence Picks - Writing Memoirs

Take a deep dive into how to write memoirs with this list from CHPL's Writer-in-Residence Pauletta Hansel.

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Have you written or do you plan to write a memoir? What literary tools did you choose or plan to use when writing?