The difference between memoirs and memories

from our November 2012 issue

By Martha Morgan

– What’s the difference between memoirs and memories? Well, memoirs have to be pretty factual, whereas memories may rely totally on the imagination.

For instance, when grandpa talks about his five-mile walk to school, he may be adding a mile or so, but if he’s writing his memoirs he has to be more or less truthful. After all, he’d be writing about things people can check up on.

Naturally, his friends would read the book, and some of them might actually remember where the original farm was, and how far it was from the school.

Many older people are persuaded by their families to write their memoirs, and some attractive books have resulted, thanks to computer technology.

They may be printed just for descendants or for more general publication. In the latter case, a certain amount of embellishment is necessary.

For example, I remember an incident from my childhood which is hardly worth mentioning but could be dressed up. I was about eight years old and admitted to hospital for a tonsillectomy. The nurse asked if I had had a bowel movement.

“A what?” I asked.

“Did you have a number two?” she asked.

That term I knew.

But if I were putting the incident into a memoir, I would have to embellish a bit. The nurse would be too long gone by now to refute it, and would not remember it in any case, so I’d be safe.

It would probably go something like this: “Did you have a bowel movement today?”

“A what?”

“Did you go to the bathroom?”

“We don’t have a bathroom. I washed at the kitchen sink.”

“Well, did you go to the outhouse?”

“Yes.”

“And what did you do there?”

“I read Eaton’s catalogue”.

“Oh. You must have been there some time then. You probably don’t need an enema.”

“A what?”

“Never mind. Did you do a Number two?”

“Yes.”

“Finally!”

The embellishment confirms the poverty of childhood, and it would then be up to the author to demonstrate upward mobility (I know the proper medical terms by now.)

It’s also important to appear humble while still establishing the fact that he or she is an intelligent, good-looking person and an all-around good guy.

Now that you know how to write an autobiography, go to it. I’m looking forward to reading your book.


Martha Morgan (1921-2014) described herself as “a literary Jack-of-all-Trades,” having written for magazines, radio and television. In her column, “Notes From Over the Hill,” launched in 1993, she found her true niche. Unlike columns that offer advice to retirees, Martha’s take was a humorous look at the quirks and foibles of aging. Her book, Notes From Over The Hill, is a collection of her popular musings. Buy it today for yourself or as a gift!