One of the most frequently asked questions by Edits Made Easy clients who are exploring the option of writing personal histories is whether they are preparing a memoir or an autobiography. In fact, when many writers feel compelled to record the story of their lives, they often face this question―as well as the questions of which elements the writing requires as critical to the genre, or what must be extrapolated from events, or in just what ways, if any, the memoir and autobiography are different. Or maybe they’re the same thing? While both the memoir and the autobiography have elements in common, there are also important ways in which they differ. To determine whether your project falls into one category or the other, here are a few points to consider:
The memoir is the less structured of the two genres. It does not need to span the life of the writer, but can be about a single day, a special moment, a fragrance, a particular color (that leads you to recall a shirt of that color that you wore in high school, an event during which you wore the shirt, what your best friend thought about your clothing choices, etc.) These seemingly disparate thoughts are your memories and a memoir is like a memory book; that is, it can be a collection of your thoughts and feelings about any one particular time period, person, place, or thing. It is mainly what you remember and not necessarily a detailed account of facts and events as you would find them in a piece of journalism. It is more like a diary entry than a newspaper article.
Let’s say you have decided to capture something from your life experience on paper. This can be a happy or sad event, a life-threatening or life-changing one, or you can simply be compelled to write about why you like to spend time at the beach. You begin to recall your subject and―in the way of all thinking minds―you begin to have many thoughts that seem to be off the topic. For example, the beach recalls a particular bathing suit you owned when you were sixteen, the smell of fried dough wafting across the boardwalk, the diets you were always trying, your envy of your friend’s svelte figure, her parents, parenting your own children, and so on. You seem to ramble on but you eventually bring yourself back to that beach and what pleasure it brings to you and why. That is memoir.
Note that this piece of writing did not necessarily include the day, time and place of your birth, your maternal or paternal grandparents, the story of how or why they came to this country or where they are living now, historical events that shaped you, your spouse, and other factual details of your life span. These elements would be some of the things you might include if you were writing an autobiography.
The autobiography, then, is subject to a more structured approach and is considered to be an entire life's history. Even if you are only sixteen years old, your autobiography must cover the events that led up to the present time and place so the reader gets a sense of your personal history. The autobiography allows less room for mental rambling than the memoir. It should stick to the toipic, be concise, and take the reader down a particularly straight and narrow path. As a once-popular television detective used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
"Just the facts," however, does not mean that your autobiography needs to be dull and lifeless. In fact, it should not be, because the purpose in writing an autobiography at all is to make the seemingly mundane take on a new and vibrant meaning so the events of your life add a new dimension to who you are for the reader. You want to insert your personality into the telling of the events in such a way as to make the reader come away understanding you a bit more, feeling closer to you and empathizing with your choices in some way.
Above all, in both memoir and autobiography, readers must receive some benefit in the long run. Readers should be entertained, or amused, or horrified―if that’s the story you decide to tell. And, while the personal is often the universal, an autobiography that is too far removed from any reader’s experience will fall flat, as will a memoir. Keep your readers in mind at all times―your ideal readers, that is―and your story will become the vehicle by which you reach them and pull them in, whether that is through a memoir or an autobiography.
This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.