My critique group was winding up its bi-monthly meeting. We were in Nancy Coffelt’s living room. Before we called it a night and went home, I raised a question. It had been on my mind for some time. I asked the group: “What exactly is a memoir?”

Every time I scan the New Book shelf at the Hollywood Library, there are usually one or two new “memoirs.” Half of Oprah’s guests always seemed to have written a “memoir.” Am I the only one asking this question? What is a memoir?

Ellen Howard, whom I consider a writer’s writer, had the best answer. “A memoir is a personal reminiscence. The people in the memoir are usually real, though the events as they are portrayed may not be.”

I asked: “So how is that different from an autobiography?”

Ellen said: “An autobiography is assumed to be a substantially accurate portrayal of events, insofar as the writer understands and remembers them. A person writing an autobiography has the responsibility of checking dates, records, facts. That’s why Autobiography is classified with Biography as nonfiction. Memoir is a looser form.”

I still didn’t get it, so Ellen took the explanation a bit further. “Think of it this way. Memoir is fiction with real people as characters.”

Oh! I get it! If you don’t like your life, you can change it. Now that has possibilities!

This immediately brought to mind a chapter in Another Life, Michael Korda’s “memoir” of his experiences in publishing during the ’60’s and ’70’s. This, by the way, is one of the most hilarious books I ever read. If you can still find a copy, don’t miss it.

Korda wrote about working with Joan Crawford on her autobiography. He gives Joan a lot of credit. She was a hard worker. She strived for excellence. Although she worked with a professional writer, she kept her appointments, promptly looked up information, read, annotated, and corrected the manuscript and galleys. She was a ghost writer’s dream client. And, as Korda gives her credit, she produced a good book, one to be proud of.

There was just one problem. It wasn’t her life. It was certainly the life she would have liked to have led; the life she believed she had led. Unfortunately, it didn’t match up with the facts.

You see, Joan was decades ahead of her time. Everyone assumed she was writing an autobiography. She was actually writing a memoir.

So now I’ll share my own Joan Crawford memoir. Joan Crawford was my mother’s favorite actress. In many ways, Joan was Mother’s role model of the strong, successful career woman who did it all. When Christina Crawford’s (memoir?/autobiography?) Mommie Dearest came out, my brother Jonny and I couldn’t resist teasing Mother, calling her “Mommie dearest.”

Our mother did not think this was amusing in any way. She gave us her iciest teacher look and said, “That book is nothing but lies. I haven’t read it and I won’t read it. I won’t have such trash in my house. Joan isn’t around anymore to tell her side of the story” Then, staring hard at us both, she added. “There is nothing worse than an ungrateful child.”

Jonny and I got the message. And that’s not “memoir.”

It’s Autobiography. With a capital ‘A’.

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