The words “memoir” and “autobiography” sound like pretty much the same thing, right?
After all, both memoirs and autobiographies describe a person’s life from the first point of view. If you were to write a book about yourself, it could be a memoir as well as an autobiography.
However, there are actually slight differences between the two, differences that can completely change how you approach your manuscript and market it afterward.
Memoir and Autobiography: Similarities
Before we dive into the whole memoir vs. autobiography business, it’s important for us to highlight some key similarities between the two genres:
- Both genres are nonfiction
- Both genres are written by the author about the author
- Both genres use the first-point-of-view perspective (“I thought, I went, I said” etc.)
While autobiographies can sometimes use the third point of view (“she, he, they”), it’s very rare to see this method of narration nowadays since writing in “I” terms makes the story more personal.
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Memoir vs. Autobiography: Differences
When referring to a nonfiction book about someone’s own life, many of us tend to mix up the terms “memoir” and “autobiography” because they essentially mean the same thing.
If you’re trying to navigate the literary world with more confidence and knowledge, however, the subtle differences between the two can come in handy as they allow for a more complex analysis of books in these genres.
What Is a Memoir?
Originating from the French word mémoire (“memory” or “recollection”), a memoir is a nonfiction piece of work that focuses on the author’s subjective memories of a specific time period in their life.
The most crucial element here is subjectivity.
Memoirs are very emotion-based – their main aim is to capture one’s own experience of past events and one’s process of recalling old memories, which means that while memoirs attempt to be factually correct, perceptions and feelings are at the forefront of the work.
Since memories tend to be fragmented, incomplete, vague, or highly subjective in nature, the structure of a memoir entirely depends on its author.
For example, a memoir can have a chronological narrative, it can be split into different chapters based on various areas of one’s life, or it can jump between different times and places depending on how the author in question perceives their past experience.
What’s more, while a memoir is ultimately nonfiction, it still relies on the power of storytelling structures and narrative arches in order to immerse the reader and make for an enjoyable story.
As Kyoko Mori, author of the memoirs Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures and Yarn: Remembering the Way Home, told Melanie Brooks:
“I always think plot has to rise out of character, and that is exactly the same whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. It’s really about that person realizing something or working toward something or coming to terms with something. There has to be conflict, you know?”
To sum it up, a memoir:
- Orients itself around a specific time period or theme of one’s life
- Focuses on a subjective perception of past experiences and memories
- Is flexible when it comes to its structure
- Follows the basic rules of storytelling
- Isn’t fact-checked
- Can be written by anyone
What Is an Autobiography?
An autobiography is a nonfiction book that recounts factually correct information about one’s life.
Autobiographies usually follow a chronological structure and they cover everything from one’s childhood to the point of writing, which is why many autobiographies are drafted in the later stages of the author’s life.
Since autobiographies are considered to be credible sources used by historians, it’s important that they are fact-checked and that they veer on the side of objectivity.
Whilst anyone could technically write their own autobiography, the genre usually belongs to people who are famous in their field (think Maya Angelou) or hold a position of power (think Benjamin Franklin).
This is because memoirs revolve around a specific theme, making for an interesting tale no matter the author, while autobiographies span decades of one’s life, which means the public must be interested in the person themselves.
To sum it up, an autobiography:
- Recounts the whole history of one’s life up to the point of writing
- Is fact-checked and used as a valuable source by academics
- Tends to be written by a public persona or someone well-known in their field
- Is usually chronological in nature
Autobiography vs. Biography
The difference between an autobiography and a biography is quite simple.
An autobiography is written about one’s own life. A biography is written about someone else’s life.
For example, Stephen King: A Biography is written by Albert Rolls. King himself hasn’t written an autobiography, but he’s published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which – as the name suggests – is a memoir because it revolves around one specific theme.
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Memoir vs. Autobiography: Examples
Let’s compare extracts from a memoir and an autobiography to highlight the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two:
Memoir: Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation:
“No, I’m no patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be. And yet, the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love. It lives within me despite my knowledge of our marginality, and its primitive, unpretty emotions. Is it blind and self-deceptive of me to hold on to its memory? I think it would be blind and self-deceptive not to. All it has given me is the world, but that is enough.
It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind …. no geometry of landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservation.”
Autobiography: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom:
“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, White and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”
As you can see, both include one’s personal opinions and beliefs, not to mention beautiful prose.
What sets them apart is that Mandela’s words serve to bring the reader closer to the objective events of his life, while Hoffman’s memoir’s importance lies in the topic itself (migration and displacement).
The terms “memoir” and “autobiography” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually contain some important differences that allow us to conduct a more elaborate and nuanced analysis of these genres.
And now that you know the answer to the memoir vs. autobiography question,feel free to go ahead and write yours!