The Difference between Memoir and Autobiography

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If you’re old enough to recognize the photo of the machine above (as I do), then maybe it’s time to consider writing about your life. Joy, insight, memories, feelings from long ago, maybe putting some old ghosts … all these await your summons.  Look back into your childhood club house. See what’s waiting.

Some people say they don’t remember enough, or that nothing ever happened to them. I say rubbish. You don’t know what’s there until you look. I thought I couldn’t remember anything from my childhood. Then I began writing–like someone had washed the windows, cleared away the muck, so I could see into my childhood. So many things started to become clear. Like the start of a lovely relationship–with myself!  Try it, you might be surprised. I know I was.

If the idea tickles your writing gene, then I encourage you to give it a shot. Here’s a thought starter: ponder the difference between autobiography and memoir.

If these two words sound synonymous to you, welcome to the party. It’s true they have a core in common: they’re both written works, focused on the life of the author. But there are important differences. Many who set out to write about their lives, fail to recognize the distinction between memoir and autobiography, and in so doing, they go down the wrong path and thereby end up in the wrong field.

How to avoid this common mistake:

Consider: Autobiography is the report of a life. It usually starts as early as the writer has any knowledge or memory (even before birth) and proceeds, more or less chronologically, up to the current time. Autobiography tends to answer the question, “What happened?” Autobiography is usually externally focused, on the events or the facts of a life.

Memoir, by contrast, focuses on a segment or theme of a life. It starts at some point in time (could be when the protagonist is 10, or could be at age 30 or 50 or even 80) and proceeds, often not chronologically, to explore some aspect or theme of the author’s life. Memoir tends to answer the question, “Why did X happen?”  Memoir  recognizes that life is not just what happens, but what you do with what happens–the story, the meaning, the subjective truth. Memoir tends to be more internally focused.

Autobiographies are most often written by celebrities and those who want to leave a legacy record, usually for children and grandchildren. Most autobiographies are not of great interest to those who do not know the author.

Memoir, on the other hand, may focus on a passion (e.g. gardening, cooking, travel) or a life challenge (e.g. an illness, a loss, a career) or an inner experience (e.g. spiritual, psychological). Memoir does not attempt to tell the whole life story but selects moments and discussions that relate to the central theme.

Of course, you can blend the two, but fundamentally they are very different. Both can be very satisfying to write. Before you go too far with your writing, consider who (including yourself) you are writing for, what you want to include, how personally revealing you are willing to be, and your intention–why you want to write.

Both autobiography and memoir can be enormously satisfying. Writing a “life story” can be so deeply satisfying and healing, but you need to consider what you are doing, why, and for whom. Autobiography and memoir are two different paths. Choose wisely and enjoy the journey.

4 Responses to The Difference between Memoir and Autobiography

  • Dear Peter, Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights. While reading I pictured the many books by celebrities of one ilk or another and the titles that could be catalogued under “Fill in Celebrity Name”: A “Fill in Verb/Noun/Adjective” Life. Always good to be reminded to consider your desired destination before committing fully to your path.

    • Amen, Sarah. Seems to me that too often these days, what drives interest in books is BIG name and/or BIG social media presence. How about quality of the book? I know it’s a radical idea, but …?

  • Peter — Thanks for this helpful explanation. Your explanation brings clarify to this important topic.

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