Autobiography vs Memoir: What’s the Difference?

memoirs writing tips Jan 19, 2023
Autobiography or Memoir: What's Right for Your Story

You’ve decided to write your life story. Congratulations! Most people only think about writing their story but never actually get it from their head to the page. Before you get started, you’ll want to determine which type of life story you want to write—memoir or autobiography. These two genres are similar in that they both have to do with life stories. But they’re distinctly different in their scope and purpose. Knowing the differences will help you decide which approach is right for the story you're trying to tell.

Let’s take a look at what sets an autobiography apart from a memoir. 

What Is an Autobiography? 

An autobiography is the story of someone's entire life as told by that person. This type of book usually covers birth up until the present day, or at least up until some major event in the author's life. If an autobiography were a scrapbook, it would feature pictures from your entire life.

Autobiographies are typically written in chronological order and include details about the author's family, upbringing, friends, and relationships they had throughout their life. It often includes events such as career moves, major milestones, and other moments that were significant to them. Though an autobiography covers the breadth of a person’s life, it should not be solely composed of facts and data. It should include personal reflections and insights you’ve learned along the way too. 

What Is a Memoir? 

A memoir is also a true-life story, but it focuses on one specific aspect of the author’s life rather than their entire lifetime. The focus could be on anything from an illness or injury to overcoming a challenge or facing adversity in some way. Instead of capturing the entire scope of your life, your lens narrows in a memoir to highlight key memories that illustrate a larger theme that others can learn from.

In an interview on Ronit Plank’s podcast, Let’s Talk Memoir, publishing expert Jane Friedman says, “Memoir is when you're writing a first-person story focused on some problem or challenge in your life. The lens you’re applying is your own. The life you’re reflecting on is your own. You can bring in research and current events, but the focus is on your own journey.”

Author and instructor Alison Wearing says, "Memoir only aims to cover one aspect of a life, one event, one relationship. This narrow focus allows us to go deep because we’re not trying to cover everything. Memoirists deliberately limit the scope of their stories. This makes the story more interesting.”

There are no rules about what must be included in the memoir or how long it should be (though typically they range from 60,000 to 80,000 words). Memoirs can cover any amount of time from just one day up to a few years—or even decades! But the big difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that an autobiography is a story of a life, whereas a memoir is a story from a life.

The Memoir Paradox

Memoirs are often more personal than autobiographies because they tend to dive deeper into feelings, emotions, and thoughts instead of simply recounting events as they occurred chronologically. Paradoxically, though your memoir is personal, it’s not actually about you. Memoir differs from autobiography primarily on this point.

“Your personal little story must illustrate a bigger universal theme, such as grief, or coming of age, or coming out or stepping into something,” says Wearing. “Our personal stories invite the reader to resonate with this bigger theme and tap into the universal experience of a certain theme. Being able to express a larger insight and theme is what makes memoir so powerful. We are not writing about ourselves but through ourselves to something greater.”

Autobiography or Memoir: Which Is Right for You?

So how do you know if you should write a memoir or an autobiography? The main way to choose is to consider why you’re writing about your life and who your story is for.

If you want to capture the history of your life so that your family or the world at large will have a lasting chronicle of who you are and what your life consisted of, an autobiography may be the right choice for you.

But if you’re trying to tell a story from your life to explore and illuminate a larger theme, then memoir may be your path.

Whether you choose an autobiography or a memoir (or both over time), know that you are embarking on a journey that will bring great satisfaction as you delve into the memories that have shaped your life. 

Get started writing your life stories.

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