These days, there is a lot confusion surrounding the genres of memoir and autobiography, with many authors unsure of the actual purpose of these writing styles. People will often say that they are writing their autobiography when they really mean they are writing a memoir. Despite sharing some similar features, there are fundamental differences between a publication that is defined as a memoir and one that is considered to be an autobiography.
According to well-known American author Gore Vidal: ‘Memoir is how one remembers one’s own life while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked’. So before you decide to embark on writing your life story, it is important to have an understanding of the key similarities and differences between memoirs and autobiographies.
Similarities between Memoirs and Autobiographies
Both memoirs and autobiographies are written in the first person and they are true accounts of the author’s life. The author shares personal information with readers, in this way giving their audience genuine insight into the author’s thoughts, motivations and feelings.
Differences between Memoirs and Autobiographies
Memoirs usually focus on one or two central themes and explore one particular area or timeframe of the author’s life in depth. This might include sharing their experiences of overcoming an illness, a near-death experience or some other life-altering event. Memoirs usually cover a brief period of the author’s life, focusing on stories that relate to the main theme. The author may hop back and forth between different timeframes or they may start their memoir at a random point in time, objectively revisiting an extraordinary life event.
Autobiographies, on the other hand, are usually structured chronologically; they are the story of the author’s life from birth until the time of writing. They cover a much broader time span and no one incident is considered to be more important than any other.
Memoirs are more personal than autobiographies. Memoir authors reflect on what they have learned from their experiences and share their innermost thoughts with their readers. The author may offer opinions and question their own beliefs throughout the memoir without ever reaching a definitive answer. The story in a memoir relies on the author’s memories and may not be entirely true – for example, it is not possible to recount conversations exactly as they were spoken at the time.
In contrast, autobiographies include factual material that can be verified by readers. They are often written by celebrities whose fans are interested in the details of their lives and how they became famous. In contrast, anyone who has an interesting message they wish to share with others can write a memoir.
Memoir Writing Tips
Regardless of which genre you decide on, it is important to remember that your writer’s voice must engage the reader from the very first sentence. Your personality should be conveyed through your unique author voice. In memoir writing, using a conversational style helps readers to feel you are speaking to them personally – almost as though you are confiding in them.
On the whole, memoirs have an overarching theme such as triumph over adversity where the author has experienced terrible hardship but through courage and persistence has been able to prevail and succeed. When writing a memoir it is important to convey your character flaws as well as those strengths that helped you through your ordeal to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded human being who people can relate to.
Memoirs give readers the impression that what they are reading is true as opposed to imaginary (as in fiction). Therefore, your writing must be candid or readers will disengage with the narrative. Readers can usually detect when a writer is being dishonest. This is due to the fact that there is something uneasy about the writing style which makes them wonder why they don’t believe what they are reading.
Memoir readers want to be simultaneously entertained and enlightened by the subject matter. Always keep your audience in mind and avoid meaningless details or wallowing in self-pity. Long-winded, self-indulgent narrative will cause your readers to lose interest and feel unsympathetic towards you.
There are many reasons why people want to record their personal history. Maybe it’s because they learned an important life lesson that they want to share with others. Or perhaps they want to publish a record of their life for future generations of family to enjoy. Many authors decide to write down their memories as a form of therapy. Whatever the reason, by honing your understanding of the different styles associated with memoirs and autobiographies, you will be well prepared to tell your story.