Meet the Man who Wrote the First Memoir

St. Augustine, first memoirist, writing his memoir, head on hand

There is much we can learn from the work of St. Augustine of Hippo, a pioneer of the genre and the first recorded memoirist.

What is a memoir you might ask? If you're a little unclear, take a read of a previous blog which answers that question more in-depth. But, in short, a memoir is a written account of our lives. As St. Augustine finished his memoir Confessions in the year 398 when he was 46 years old, it is hardly a new genre.

Do you sometimes think that your writing is a little slow? Have no fear, St. Augustine took two years to write his memoir which he started soon after he was appointed Bishop of Hippo, in modern day Algeria, in 396. 

St. Augustine's memoir follows an autobiographical format as he traces his life in chronological order, from infancy to age 32. The focus of his memoir is his spiritual awakening from a life of debauchery and hedonism, and his subsequent spiritual growth as a follower of Christ. St. Augustine narrowed the focus of his memoir to show how God pursued him through various experiences in his life.

In Confessions, St. Augustine poses a question that has resounded through the centuries and still resonates with us today. He writes, “And I turned myself unto myself, and said to myself, “Who are You?”.

This question is what we call a core universal theme. He went on to explore other questions: Why am I here? Is this all it is? And does God exist? Again these are all universal themes, particularly for a spiritual memoir.

Regardless of our gender, our race, or our nationality, and whether we live in Toronto or Tehran, work in the rice fields of Sri Lanka or fly jetliners out of Singapore, there are universal questions, themes, and issues that pertain to all of us. What can also make these themes universal is, as St. Augustine has shown, that we have asked these questions or struggled with these life issues through the centuries.

Consequently, the role of a memoirist is to use herself, her life experiences, and her observations to explore, illustrate, and write on universal themes that will resonate with readers. This writing to universal themes is a hallmark of good memoir writing. St. Augustine got it right, way back in 398. Which is why his memoir is still read today.

You can find links to my three most recent blog posts right here.

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1 comment

  • Brenda Smit-James

    In my memoir, I have explored the deep questionings that come after the death of a loved one. They are the universal questions about faith. Is faith, and in particular my Christian faith, true, valid, and of worth?

    A deep curiosity I have, which I want to explore in writing, is why are some people able to find a way forward through the difficulties of life and others get stuck? What are the qualities the first group tap into that the second group miss?

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