What’s The Difference Between a Memoir and Autobiography?

Sun & Moon, Love by Laura "Pelick" Siadak

Some of you who followed me early on might have an inkling that for some time I have been trying to write a book titled, “Sunshine and Moonbeams.” It’s a book that burns to be written, but every time I go to write it, it gets stuck. Then I wander off to do something else, hoping when I return that the lightbulb would click on and the words would be flying. Didn’t happen. No matter how many times I tried, it was like being stuck in a pit of sinking mud without a rope to hoist myself out.

I had an epiphany this weekend. The problem isn’t the story. It’s the way I’m attempting to tell it. It isn’t a fiction story. It’s reality. Trying to write it as a fictional story was only making it complicated and refused to be told. It wouldn’t budge. It dragged. It plundered. It plodded. It exhausted me. I realized, how can I write this story as fiction when it’s MY story?

I’m reading a book titled, “How to Write and Sell Your Memoir,” by Paula Balzar. Excellent book, by the way, for those of you who are interested in writing your memoir. I’ve always felt that I had a story to tell, but was too afraid to put it out there from “me.” I thought I needed to change the characters, fabricate story lines, and twist it around enough that it couldn’t be traced directly back to me. Well, apparently I was wrong. Not to say that it’s “wrong” for anyone else, but for this particular story, it absolutely dug in its heels like a stubborn mule. Therefore, it is now becoming a Memoir (as I tremble at those words).

Balzar brought up an excellent point in her book that I thought I would share with you. Often, people are confused by memoirs and autobiographies. They tend to be similar, yet they are vastly different. A lot of people interchange the words during conversations. While informally this is accepted, there are certain obvious distinctions between the types. It’s important to know this as a writer setting out to tell your story.

Autobiographies serve a different purpose than a Memoir. Autobiographies are a self-written account of one’s life from birth until the time of writing. They tend to be chronological and a remembrance of important events. The events don’t need to be related and they don’t need to build to a climatic moment. It delves into various other relationships of the author and gives a lot of background information about the author or person such as where he/she grew up, studied, parents, siblings, etc. Autobiographies generally become best selling only if written by a famous person or celebrity. Examples of autobiographies are Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Sharon Osbourne Extreme: My Autobiography, Steve Jobs: His Own Words and Wisdom (Steve Jobs Biography),Steven Tyler: The Biography, and DK Biography: Princess Diana. Notice they’re all about significantly famous people. Few people wish to read the birth and life of a “nobody.” That’s not to say that they aren’t valuable as a way to preserve family history. Autobiographies can sometimes fail to stir the emotions of a reader because the triumphs and failures of the author can get lost somewhere in the trivia that is demanded from an autobiography. It is much more inward looking and typically revolves around the author or person.

Now, a Memoir on the other hand, has a completely different purpose. It reads like a novel. The story is told through a prism of one particular life experience and usually focuses on a finite period of time and not the person’s life as a whole. They have crafted scenes that build on one another to reach a pivotal moment. A memoir is personal. The author recollects the event(s) vividly because it has impacted him/her. There is an emotional quality and depth in a memoir that lacks typically in an autobiography.  It is taking a moment in time that had a profound effect on you and you feel the need to tell the story. There is usually an overarching theme to the story such as a turbulent youth like in The Glass Castle, or the experience of a brutal rape victim and survival as in Lucky: A Memoir. Other good examples are An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. There are so many excellent memoirs, I could go on and on. But I’ll save that for another day. Anyone can write a memoir (not that everyone should) and you don’t have to be famous, either (although it never hurts).

Well, I guess I’m off to writing a memoir! Maybe this time, the story will be told in its entirety.

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