Are You Writing A Memoir Or Autobiography? How To Tell

Memoir or Autobiography

A memoir and autobiography are similar genres that detail a life story.

In literary circles, the definition between the two is sometimes a little fuzzy.

Both record the life story of the author and are written in the first-person point of view. That is, I was born, I lived, and I married the man/woman of my dreams.

Perhaps the only way to define each genre is to say that one is a factual biography. The other is a memory of a certain time.

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Memoir vs. autobiography

If you are in the process of writing your story, which genre will you choose when the day comes to publish your book?

Because you can select two genre categories with most of the major self-publishing services, you might be tempted to choose both.

It might not seem like a big deal. But depending on how you write your story, you might want to categorize your book in the most appropriate genre.

For a quick definition, Writer’s Digest says this.

An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life, while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life.

With that said, let’s have a look at some tangible differences between a memoir and an autobiography.

 

What is a memoir?

The main feature of a memoir is that it is about a certain time in an author’s life.

It is often a memory or reminiscence of a life-changing event and documents the story from the aspect of challenge through to resolution.

More focused than an autobiography, a memoir is an intimate look at a moment in time. Source: Celadon Books

In other words, the storyline will detail an experience that involves perhaps, periods of sadness, difficulty, friendship, and happiness.

Some memoirs touch on life subjects such as divorce, illness, professional challenges, or family issues.

Similar to a novel, it is a story with a protagonist. The only difference is that it is not fiction, and the protagonist is the author.

But because it is a story, an author can use a range of storytelling literary devices when writing it.

There can be suspense, drama, danger, a climax, and a dénouement.

One notable aspect of a memoir is that it doesn’t necessarily deal with many hard facts.

Because it is a memory from the author’s viewpoint, a memoir focuses more on the feelings and emotions of the time to drive the plot.

 

What is an autobiography?

If you remove the prefix, you have a biography. This gives you a clue to the meaning.

A biography deals in facts and from a third-person point of view. It usually covers a person’s entire life and is written by someone else.

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Elvis Presley, the famous American rock and roll singer, was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi.

He lived in Memphis, Tennessee. The world mourned when he died in 1977.

When you put the auto prefix back, it is impossible for an author to write their own full biography.

An autobiography can only cover the period up to the present because the author is still alive.

Unlike a memoir, it is far more fact-based than emotional. It is not delving into feelings as deeply.

Usually, it follows a strict chronological order of events that are heavy on facts and details and is always written in the first person.

For celebrities, politicians, and people of fame, the book could be written by a ghostwriter.

But a strict definition is not so easy.

For example, The Living Handbook of Narratology uses this definition.

Notoriously difficult to define, autobiography in the broader sense of the word is used almost synonymously with “life writing” and denotes all modes and genres of telling one’s own life.

More specifically, autobiography as a literary genre signifies a retrospective narrative that undertakes to tell the author’s own life, or a substantial part of it, seeking (at least in its classic version) to reconstruct his/her personal development within a given historical, social and cultural framework.

When you are writing, the process will be much less about telling a story. It will be more about documenting a collection of facts in the correct time order.

 

Does it matter what you choose?

In the end, you could say that there is very little difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Most books in these genres are a mixture of the two styles of writing.

It would be difficult reading if there were no story, only a list of facts and figures.

Every book needs emotion and characters that readers can connect with.

Scribe Media makes a good point about any differentiation.

Memoirs are autobiographies without the elitist attitude.

It’s like saying a dog is different from a canine. Or a car is different from an automobile.

It’s up to you as the author to decide what you are writing.

But in all honesty, it isn’t easy to separate the two. A memoir is an autobiography, and the reverse is true.

How you tell your life, or part of your life story from beginning to end, is the most important ingredient.

 

Summary

Good writing is always good writing.

But it is challenging to write a story using the first-person point of view.

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Jane Friedman gives a clue about how to use this POV to create a story.

First-person POV is fixed, in that it’s limited to what you knew and experienced at the time of a given scene. However, the fact that your perspective changed over time is what makes memoir a story.

To create the most powerful story, use your perspective today to identify scenes that were aha moments, where your perspective on your theme changed. The moment when you faced a fear directly. The moment you escaped someone else’s expectations. The moment you realized you were in love with the wrong person.

If you focus first on the inner journey, you’ll find the best scenes to bring that transformation to life.

The decision you make about your precise genre hardly matters because your story will fit into both.

But if your memory is the basis of your story, you might want to call it your memoir.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

4 thoughts on “Are You Writing A Memoir Or Autobiography? How To Tell

  • February 8, 2021 at 1:11 pm
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    I definitely couldn’t fit my autobiography into one volume, it would make War and Peace look like a novella! I’ve written three memoirs so far and have only covered a nine-year period of my life. At least three more to come – if I live long enough to write them. I have to be in the right/write mood.

    Reply
    • February 8, 2021 at 1:23 pm
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      It sounds like you definitely qualify for an autobiography and not a memoir, Ann.

      Reply
  • February 3, 2021 at 12:14 am
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    lol so this entire post can be summed up ‘they’re the same thing, go about your day’.

    Reply
  • January 28, 2021 at 7:52 pm
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    Very useful, thank you!! Having just published what I thought would be a single volume, but realising later that there would have to be at least a second one — which I have just started work on — I think some ideas picked up here will colour this, my second effort in prose, having written only poetry all my life!

    Guido Comin
    aka PoetaMatusèl

    Reply

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