What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
If you’re considering writing your own, getting some clarity about these easily confused genres is a good place to start!
Autobiographies and memoirs are two of the most popular genres on the market right now. They’re right alongside thriller and romance novels in terms of sales.
If you’re like me, that might surprise you—I personally have only read a few autobiographies and maybe a handful of memoirs. I definitely don’t go looking for them.
But when you think about it, it makes sense. Memoir and autobiographies have an appeal to them in that they’re real stories that actually happened to real people. Want to learn how a boy from the Midwest ended up playing for the NFL? Want to learn how a scrappy young businessman became one of the wealthiest people alive?
There’s a thrill to these sorts of stories when they’re real. It makes us think that maybe that could happen to us. Or, in the event of a memoir detailing a particularly tragic life, it makes us worry that could happen to us, or that that might happen to someone else.
Autobiographies and memoirs are increasingly popular and important—but they aren’t the same thing, it turns out. Although they’re often used interchangeably and even shelved together, there’s a few differences between these genres, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today!
The difference between a memoir and an autobiography
At its core, here’s the difference:
An autobiography tells the full story of someone’s life in the order the events happened. It follows them from birth to the present day (or whenever they finish the autobiography). While an autobiography should definitely be written well, it probably won’t read much like a conventional novel.
It’s focused on facts, details, and giving as much information about the subject as possible. That information is still supposed to be portrayed in an interesting way, but the emphasis is more on chronicling, data, and following the subject’s entire life.
Memoir, by contrast, is a little more artistic. Instead of detailing someone’s life, memoir might only focus on a few key moments in a person’s life, or even just one major event.
These events might take place out of order or incorporate flashbacks. They’ll often include more elements you’d see in a traditional novel, and the objective is not to record facts. It’s to get at the emotional truth of an event or period of time, often accompanied with an overarching lesson to teach.
What makes a good memoir?
How do we distinguish the good from the bad when it comes to memoir?
1. A Nuanced Perspective
A nuanced perspective is absolutely vital for writing a compelling memoir.
A subject who writes a memoir without doing any real self-reflecting is probably going to write something flat, one-sided, and maybe a little whiny.
What does this look like in practice? It means people shouldn’t use memoir as an outlet for trashing people or painting out their exes to be horrible villains.
For one, this is rude, and for another, it makes for an uninteresting reading experience.
Memoir needs to be entertaining, and flat characters aren’t entertaining.
It also means that writers might need to get some therapy and space from a traumatic event, if that’s what they want to write their memoir about.
It can be really hard to write in a nuanced way about people who have done you harm. It can be hard just to think about all the stuff that’s happened in your life, honestly.
When thinking about how to write a memoir, a writer should consider all sides of the events in their memoir.
Self-Publishing School students, Justin and Alexis Black, recently published their memoir, Redefining Normal. Here’s an excerpt from the interview with these memoir writers regarding the writing process:
“From many blogs that I’ve read and podcasts that I’ve listened to, I learned that you have to be careful when you write a memoir and not become the victim in it,” says Alexis. When you are the victor, people can learn the lessons you want them to take away.
She also recommends getting a good book editor because not everything needs to be in your book for your memoir. “It’s important to have your story buttoned up tight and really well-written so people can follow-along and relate to your story.” Justin adds the importance of being self-reflective, authentic, and intentional of your experiences in your story.
It’s the same as writing any other book—even if we’re writing from the protagonist’s point of view, it’s still important to understand the villain as a character unto himself.
2. An Interesting Life
Another way that memoir is like any other book: it should be interesting! The subject should have something interesting to say, and they should say it in an interesting way.
This isn’t to say that you have to have a crazy rags to riches story or have traveled the world in order to have an interesting life. Powerful memoirs can come from anybody.
The key is that the writer needs to find the interesting things about their life and show the reader why those things were interesting.
Basically, no one wants to read a memoir where the reader is forced to attend high school day in and day out with the author for no apparent reason. In a fiction book, you would say that if an element of the book isn’t serving the plot’s progression, it needs to be cut. The same goes for memoir.
A writer isn’t bound to relay their entire lives the way they might be if they wrote an autobiography, so there’s really plenty of room to leave out whatever doesn’t fit. A memoir about a mother experiencing the birth of her first child doesn’t necessarily need to include information about how the mother felt when she was in middle school.
3. Vulnerability and Honesty
Memoir should also be vulnerable and honest.
Writers shouldn’t shy away from the more dramatic pieces of their past when they’re penning their memoir—it doesn’t do to tell half the story, and the story will be extremely stilted if the reader can tell there’s an elephant in the room going unaddressed.
This comes along with the nuanced perspective I mentioned earlier.
A good memoirist knows their own faults, acknowledges their own low points, and turns that critical gaze inwards as well as outwards. They should be making this memoir personal, which is, you know, kind of the whole point.
Writers should also interrogate themselves about the significance of the events in their memoir. What impact did that event have on them then, and what impact has it had on them since?
Why was that event so important? (This interrogation is a great way to stay vulnerable, but it’s also a great way to make more mundane events magical.)
4. A Satisfying Narrative
Finally, and yet one more way in which a memoir should look like any other story: we need a satisfying narrative.
Sometimes, authors think they can get away with compiling their journal entries or blog posts to make a memoir.
It’s authentic, it’s usually pretty vulnerable, and it’s got all the good stuff!
But it can be disorganized.
Our daily lives don’t have a structure to them—to make it understandable, we need to apply that structure after the fact.
One solid difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the author’s flexibility with the timeline of events when writing a memoir.
But to keep a story cohesive, we need a writing tool….
Introducing…the narrative arc!
Popular narrative arcs in memoir include: rags to riches, person vs. self, person vs. society, voyage to home.
There’s a few thousand more on Google, but these are some of the more common and simpler ones.
These structures are a godsend, because they give us an order to put the events in.
Because it’s not autobiographical, it’s not super important to stick with chronology, but it is important that the reader is able to follow the events in an engaging way.
Looking for some memoirs to check out? Here’s a few recommendations:
- The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr A Life’s Work Rachel Kusk
What makes a good autobiography?
We’ve covered memoir, so let’s take a look at autobiographies. What does a good autobiography include, and what does it do well?
1. A Clear Timeline
First and foremost, it’s very important that an autobiography has a clear timeline. This is pretty easy, in a way—it’s going to follow the subject from birth to the present day—but it can get complicated. It’s important that everything happens in chronological order, and it’s important that readers can tell when events took place.
For example, if there’s a chapter about a person’s life in college, we should know which events took place during which year or term. It shouldn’t all be jumbled together in one four-year block of time.
It can be difficult to establish a clear timeline for every part of someone’s life, and it’s okay if not every single thing has a date stamped on it. What’s most important for the reader is that they can tell which events happened before or after the surrounding events, and that it’s consistent throughout. A thorough edit and careful outline can prevent a lot of timeline confusion for autobiography authors.
2. Extensive Research
Memoirists may still need to do some research to make sure they’ve got the basic facts of their story straight, but they’re more focused on emotional truth than relaying information.
Autobiographists, on the other hand, are here to relay information.
When beginning to start an autobiography, the author needs to have the facts down, which means they need to do a lot of research. This might mean getting in touch with parents to ask questions about their childhood home, or revisiting their hometown, or even reconnecting with old flames.
Not only is this research going to give the writer a more balanced perspective to work with, knowing more information, but it’s also going to guarantee that the facts of what happened are correct, and as much of the story is being told as possible.
3. Balanced, Clear Perspective
Does this sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same for both of them!
Autobiographists need to worry about this just as much as memoirists do. Writing someone in a one-sided way will cause a few issues.
First, it will possibly get a writer in legal trouble if they didn’t ask permission before portraying that person that way.
Second, it’s going to create a noticeably flat character. Your characters need to be lifelike, and lifelike characters, like real people, have multiple dimensions.
If there’s a parent, for example, who’s just the Wicked Witch of the West, the reader’s going to get the sense that there’s information missing.
And if you’ve got information gaps, you’ve got a bad autobiography.
Flat characters or settings come from a lack of understanding and information. It’s not that a writer should be trying to portray everything in the best light possible, rather that the writer should be trying to portray everything in the most nuanced light possible.
Maybe from the writer’s point of view, Susan was an absolute monster. But we need more information about Susan to understand this conflict.
4. A Satisfying Narrative
Guess what! This is also important for autobiographers and memoirists alike.
A memoir has more space to play around with style. They can throw things out of order if they want, and they can make it look more like a creative piece.
Autobiographers definitely need to stick to the birth to present day trajectory. Again, the objective is to tell the story of someone’s life from start to present, so any deviation from that is going to be weird. But that doesn’t mean an autobiography can’t still have a narrative.
Like I said earlier, our human lives are chaotic, random, and not easily divided into a three act story structure.
It can be extremely difficult to find a way to make an autobiography cohesive and follow a narrative throughline.
It’s not impossible, though. You can even use those same narrative arcs I shared earlier.
An autobiography written by an immigrant, for example, will document their entire life and give information about their upbringing and journey to a new country, but it might focus particularly on the immigrant’s experience coming to that new country. This journey to acceptance or belonging is a narrative (person vs. society) that a reader can follow along with.
It’s also, again, an awesome way to categorize the endless information a writer ends up with.
Knowing what your narrative is will tell you which parts to elaborate on and which parts to summarize. Since an autobiography isn’t a memoir, it won’t do to just cut entire sections of someone’s life, but if they aren’t particularly pertinent to the narrative, they can be mentioned more briefly.
5. Autobiography examples
If you’re looking for some autobiographies, here’s a few you can check out today!
- Becoming by Michele Obama
- A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, a Slave by Frederick Douglas
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
- Me by Elton John
Shaking Out The Difference Between A Memoir and An Autobiography
Memoir is a term that means “to remember.” It denotes an account of one’s own life, thoughts or feelings in prose form.
The author may be the protagonist in the story but not always; sometimes they are minor characters in someone else’s narrative who have had some significant impact on their lives.
A memoir can contain information about others’ lives and recollections from other people than just oneself- it isn’t limited to your personal experience only.
What makes for great memoir? Great writers know how to weave together vignettes with deep meaning so readers feel like they’re reliving memories along side them– you’ll find yourself laughing at funny anecdotes and crying when difficult parts arise.
While memoirs focus on “emotional truth”, autobiographies centralize around a chronological timeline of the author’s life.
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