What is a Memoir and Why do Authors Write Them? Looking at Genre While Not Forgetting Purpose

After spending several weeks working on writing stories from our lives to give as gifts to people that are important to us, it was time to shift gears slightly and start to talk about memoir.  As I moved into a more genre focused unit of writing, I didn’t want to lose the work that we had already done in thinking more deeply about a purpose for writing over a genre.  I know that my district requires us to teach students how to write memoirs. I love writing memoirs. But I wanted to make sure that I was able to hold on to the thoughts we had started to develop about why authors write.  So I decided that we might look at memoir more through the lens of purpose than through the lens of the genre.

What I needed to ask the kids to think about then, was why authors wrote memoirs.  If we could understand the author’s purpose in writing a memoir, then we would be able to see how memoirs could serve a function in our own lives as well. Again, this seems like a really simple shift in thinking and yet I have not ever made it until this year.  So often, we focus on just the characteristics of a genre in writing.  We determine what characteristics exist in a memoir and then we ask the kids to write their own.  Again, we often forget purpose.  If I could help my students to see WHY authors write memoirs, then I think our task of writing memoirs would feel more authentic.

I figured that the best way to begin thinking about memoirs would be to start reading memoirs. So I launched our unit of discovery about memoirs by sharing with the students two pieces of my own writing.  The first piece was a personal narrative. The second piece told the same story as the first, however it was told as a memoir. I described a moment from my life and then I shared how the moment changed me and what I learned from that moment. I asked the students to do two things.  First I asked them to begin listing what they thought a memoir way.  Then, I asked the students to list why an author might choose to write a memoir. I gave them a chance to work in pairs, threes and small groups to build their lists and then we added their ideas to a class chart.

Over the next few days we looked at three other memoirs.  We read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and we read two stories from the incredible book of short stories, Guys Write for Guys Read.  After each story, I gave the students a chance to work with others to revise the lists that they wrote on the first day of our work.  As they revised their own lists, we revised our class lists as well. We tracked the changes in our thinking and understanding by using a different color marker each day that we revised our class list.

What was amazing to me was that at no point did I stop and tell the kids what the characteristics of a memoir were. And at no point did I stop and tell the kids why an author might choose to write a memoir. The kids were able to discover all of that on their own AND they were able to discover more than I ever could have possibly taught them.  By giving kids a chance to discover information, they instantly gained more ownership of that information and they were able to hold on to that information over time.

By the end of this week the students fully understood that a memoir is a story that is written about a moment in a person’s life.  The story includes not just what happened, but the writer’s reflections on the moment as well.  The writer is able to share with the reader what he or she learned or realized in the moment being described or how this moment changed the writer in some way.

And my students also understood WHY an author would write a memoir. After reading several mentor texts, my students were able to reach the conclusion that authors write memoirs so that they can use their own life experiences to teach their readers an important lesson that they have learned. They want to use what they have been through to help others. They hope that by sharing the ways moments have changed them or by sharing the lessons they have learned through these moments, they might be able to help people in similar situations.  As my students began to understand this new purpose for writing, their excitement for trying out the genre for themselves began to grow.

While we were working on these mini-lessons throughout the past weeks, the students were continuing to work on the stories that they had been writing for the people in their lives.  As their understanding of the genre of memoir began to deepen, I saw students begin to shift their own writing to reflect what we were learning about memoirs.  I never told the kids that they had to start trying to write memoirs, but many of them made this decision on their own.  This hasn’t happened in past years. I think that by allowing the students to reach their own understandings of the genre of memoir and by giving them a chance to reflect on the PURPOSE of writing memoirs, their motivation has grown and they are eager to dive into this new genre.

Yes. This work took longer than if I had just told my students what a memoir was and why we write them, but I just don’t think it would have been as powerful. The students would not feel as if they owned this new knowledge and they would still believe that they were dependent on me to give them the information that I know they are capable of gathering on their own. While I constantly feel short on time and while I constantly feel pressure to move more quickly, I know that my students deserve the time that it takes for them to take more ownership of their learning.  And seeing the understandings that they are able to reach and seeing how deep those understandings are, proves that resisting the pressure to move along too quickly is one of the best things that I can do for my students.

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2 thoughts on “What is a Memoir and Why do Authors Write Them? Looking at Genre While Not Forgetting Purpose

  1. What lucky students to have a teacher that experiences great texts with them! Have you read “Let’s go to the videotape” by Dan Gutman from Guys Read? It was always a class favorite and I have missed reading it this year!

    • You are incredibly kind. Yes! “Let’s Go to the Videotape,” is one of our favorites as well. It is so similar to Heartbeat in many ways and kids always enjoy seeing the connections. Plus, they love Dan Gutman, so that helps as well. That book is just a treasure trove of good memoirs! Thanks so much for the suggestion.

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