Interesting Quotes About Memoirs

I was reading The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer, and found this quote from John Updike: “Memory has a spottiness as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.”

The two quotes that follow were sent to me by Dr. Mardy Grothe, quotation anthologist–thanks Mardy!

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.” Annie Dillard, in “To Fashion a Text,” in William Zinsser,Inventing the Truth (1987)

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

“Human memory awakens and extinguishes at will. It dulls and sharpens actions, enlarges and shrinks those who perform them. It humbles and exalts as it desires. When summoned, it slips away, and when it returns, it will do so at the time and place that suits it. It recognizes no chief, no overseer, no classifier, no ruler. Stories mix and mingle, facts sprout new shoots. The situations and words and scents–oh, the scents!–encrusted there are stored in the most disorganized and wonderful manner, not chronologically, not according to size or importance or even the alphabet.”
Meir Shalev, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

“Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?”
Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography

Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, writes that “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one’s life than about the outcome of the life as a whole.”

“Looking back over sixty-odd years, life is like a piece of string with knots in it, the knots being those moments that live in the mind forever, and the intervals being hazy, half-recalled times when I have a fair idea of what was happenng, in a general way, but cannot be sure of dates or places or even the exact order in which events took place.”
George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma

“When you’re writing a book that is going to be a narrative with characters and events, you’re walking very close to fiction, since you’re using some of the methods of fiction writing. You’re lying, but some of the details may well come from your general recollection rather than from the particular scene. In the end it comes down to the readers. If they believe you, you’re OK. A memoirist is really like any other con man; if he’s convincing, he’s home. If he isn’t, it doesn’t really matter whether it happened, he hasn’t succeeded in making it feel convincing.”
Samuel Hynes, author of The Growing Season: An American Boyhood Before the War

“I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.”
bell hooks, author of Bone Black

“What could be simpler to understand than the act of people writing about what they know best, their own lives? But his apparently simple act is anything but simple, for the writer becomes, in the act of writing, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation.”
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
Saul Bellow

“Autobiography may be the preeminent kind of American expression.”
Henry James

“It’s amazing how you remember everything so clearly,” a woman said…”All those conversations, details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?” “I didn’t remember it,” Lucy said presently. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.”
Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty

“It is not my deeds that I write down, it is myself, my essence.”

“Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to put it behind me.”
Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs

“Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

Perhaps the questions the writer most fears from her potential readers is: Why have you done this? With the implication: Why have you done this to me?
Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother

“Actually, the true story of a person’s life can never be written. It is beyond the power of literature. The full tale of any life would be both utterly boring and utterly unbelievable.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and Exile

“For who will testify, who will accurately describe our lives if we do not do it ourselves?”
Faye Moskowitz, And the Bridge is Love

“I knew, of course I knew, that life is always more complicated than our narratives.
John Burnside, A Lie About My Father

“I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.”
Susan Cheever

“Our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, I began to see and become more insistent as we grow older, even as we try to make them come out in some other way.”
Roger Angell, Let Me Finish

“Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around.”
Roger Angell, Let Me Finish

 “We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter.”
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

“The tales you are about to read are the truth, practically the truth, and nothing less than a half-truth…”
Nick Trout, Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon

“To the Reader: Lord knows I’ve tried my best to tell the truth here, even when it would have been simpler to fabricate. While all of the incidents in this essay collection happened, I have changed the names of people, businesses, and institutions when it felt right. In a few cases I even nudged a fact slightly, but no more than necessary and only to avoid identifying somebody I love. I’m writing from memory most of the time, so be forgiving, gentle reader. I went to college in the seventies.”
Melissa Delbridge, Family Bible

“Disclaimer: The author acknowledges that he is not Bob Woodward. Mr. Woodward is scrupulous with names and dates. This author is not. Mr. Woodward would never suggest that something happened in October when, in fact, it occurred in April. This author would. Mr. Woodward recounts conversations as they actually occurred. This author would like to do that, but alas, he does not excel at penmanship and he cannot read his notes. However, the author has an excellent memory. You can trust him.”
J. Maarten Troost, Getting Stoned with Savages

11 responses to “Interesting Quotes About Memoirs

  1. As my clients’ memoir co-author, I find this most useful page of quotes about memoirs that I’ve discovered online.


      thanks, Hawley–I’ve noticed that many people come to my site looking for quotes. I’ve accumulated quite a file of them–I’ll add some more in the next week. Roz Reisner

  2. I teach memoir writing workshops and work with individual clients to capture their life stories, and I love your collection of memoir quotes. Perpetually seeking additional inspiration for these folks, I appreciate your list!

  3. Elena Zhuravleva Russia

    I’m writing my thesis on political memoirs, on how some USA’ s presidents reveal themselves in their memoirs. I’m also analyzing their texts and searching for linguistic means that can help to detect if the politicians applied for assistance to ghostwriters. I your site I find inspiration and ideas to develop.

  4. Pingback: Memoir Writing

  5. Pingback: Memoir Writing - Los Angeles Editors & Writers Group

  6. Your site is a superb resource! Thank you kindly for creating and maintaining it.

    I’m writing a thesis on ‘Handling Time in Memoir: an exploration of the benefits of recounting events in a nonlinear way’ and am trying to find the source of the Susan Cheever quote. (“I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century…”). Would you know?

    Best regards. x

    • Rosalind Reisner

      Dear Lia,
      for some reason your comment didn’t come to my email so I’ve only seen it now. I remember reading the Cheever quote–I did a little research and if you haven’t found it already, you might try looking for Cheever’s review of Mary Karr’s last memoir, Lit around November of 2009. For several years I gave talks to librarians about the close relationship between fiction and memoir, about how you can suggest memoirs to fiction readers because many of the techniques that make a novel successful also work for memoirs, like non-linear narratives. Your thesis sounds very interesting and I’d love to hear more.

  7. As a book designer specializing in memoirs and family history, it’s so satisfying to read the different perspectives of writing a memoir. The quotes on this page are a real treat! Thank you for compiling it.
    Susan Hood

  8. Thomas C. Olson

    This is my quote on reading memoirs:
    “Reading someone’s memoir is a personal invitation by the author to allow you, the reader, to glimpse into his or her personal life and to read about the author’s joys, struggles, sorrows and fears, and how he or she handled them. It’s an openness that takes great courage, and an opportunity for the reader to reflected on his or her own life.” Thomas C. Olson,educator, Monument, Colorado

  9. Pingback: Memoir Writing: Getting Started | Los Angeles Editors and Writers Group

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