Autobiography and memoir are often lumped together, both commercially and as art forms, to the point that sometimes the lines between them blur. They’re both books by and about you, written in the first-person ("I") point of view. But they have separate aims, and the readers of each have different expectations. Here’s a short and sweet way to tell them apart:
Autobiography reports the facts of your life. Memoir conveys the impressions of selected life experiences.
A bit more:
An autobiography is usually written about a historically or culturally significant figure, and attempts to place the author’s life, accomplishments, or exploits in a wider context. The scope of the book is expansive, beginning at birth and carrying through the author’s most significant achievements or adventures. Crucially, autobiographies hue closely to the facts of the author’s life, usually in a writing style that’s light on analysis and reflection and heavy on reporting, with a focus on answering the journalistic questions Who?, What?, When?, Where?, and Why? This is because people read autobiographies for information when they seek an understanding of a person in full. The book can offer commentary and context on the author’s circumstances, but rarely uses novelistic techniques such as dialogue, scene, or painterly exposition. That’s because those constructions are largely shaped by the author’s assumptions, which may warp fact into fantasy depending on the interpretation.
A memoir is not a comprehensive account of a person’s life. Rather, it curates and weaves together moments of significance—the time span could be days, weeks, or years—into a narrative that allows much greater literary license than an autobiography, with less emphasis on the facts of the author’s life and more on their interpretation of key events. Because this approach can be applied to stories big and small, a memoir can be written by and about anybody. The term used to be reserved for the writings of former presidents and celebrities with sensational stories to tell, but over the past decade especially, the genre has come down to earth. Bookstore shelves now explode with memoirs of addiction battles, difficult childhoods, family and relationship struggles, unique friendships, meditations on careers, and other reflections on everyday lives. You still have to be true to the facts of your life—ask Oprah and James Frey how it works out if you make things up—but the form offers much more room for analysis, commentary, and interpretation than straight autobiography.
So which one is right for you? If you’re a public figure of note or a titan in your industry, and your purpose in writing a book is to share your story with the world in hopes of leading, inspiring, educating, or creating a platform to grow your personal or professional brand, then you may want to consider writing an autobiography. If you’re not publicly known or would rather use moments of your life to explore specific incidents, relationships, or themes in a thoughtful, reflective, artistic way, then memoir is the way to go.
Given these two choices, memoir is probably the more viable option for most writers. However, there’s also secret option #3, which is to turn your personal story into a thinly veiled novel and market it as fiction. This not only helps you avoid the questions of authenticity raised above, it allows you greater freedom to create on the page—and could also open up your publishing options, as some fiction genres are more marketable than memoir.
A word of caution: Because memoir is the more accessible and applicable form for most people, more people write it, which means publishers are inundated with more personal memoirs than they could possibly handle. Don’t let this discourage you from telling your story, but do think seriously about how you’ll make your memoir stand out from the crowd. Fortunately, we’ve already covered that issue in a couple of posts here on the blog:
No other story is your story. For a free consultation about how a certified ghostwriter helps you tell it to the world, call (800) 717-3314 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.