There is often a lot of confusion when it comes to memoirs and autobiographies.
While both are stories about an individual, one focuses on specific life stories that support a theme, while the other follows an individual from birth to present day. You'll be able to tell the difference between memoir vs autobiography and if you do chose to write a memoir you can do so with confidence.
Regardless, you have a story burning inside you. You want to share pieces of your life, or perhaps the majority of your life, with the world. You’ve learned lessons you want to share. You feel your story is just waiting to be told.
Maybe your life story is unique. You want to share it and leave a lasting legacy behind.
Well, it’s time to start the process. It’s time to write your story.
Before sitting down to write, it’s important to articulate for yourself what you specifically want to share and why.
Just as writing a fiction book demands planning and deciding exactly where to start and what theme to write about, so will writing your life story.
Whatever your story is, it will likely fall under the category of memoir or autobiography.
The most important choice to make prior to writing your first sentence is deciding which genre you are going to share your story through.
It’s crucial to choose the correct genre in which to tell your story. Memoirs and biographies each have different purposes.
Using a biography when you want to communicate your memoir is similar to filming a documentary when you want to film a drama.
Documentaries usually cover many details of a specific time period and are told through a linear fashion. They start at a single point in time and work their way to the end of a time period or to the present day.
Dramas focus on a theme and use specific aspects of a person’s life to articulate and highlight this theme.
Memoirs and autobiographies are much the same.
Memoir vs Autobiography: Difference Between Two Personal Stories
According to Merriam-Webster, a memoir is, “A narrative composed from personal experience” and an autobiography is, “The biography of a person narrated by that person, a usually written account of a person's life in their own words.”
In the publishing world, a memoir is a book about you that is focused on the reader. In other words, it’s pieces of your life story written with the intention of communicating a specific message to a specific audience.
An autobiography is your life story from birth to present day, including all major events, without too much thought for theme.
The purpose of an autobiography is to communicate your life story.
The purpose of a memoir is to communicate a theme, and use stories from your life to do so.
Both memoirs and autobiographies should be written with the focus on the reader, however. Writing succeeds because of readers. Whether you’re covering your life from birth to now, or sharing specific stories, keep the reader at the forefront of your mind at all times.
The more you think “reader first” the better your memoir or autobiography will be.
Should I Write A Memoir Or Autobiography?
Celebrities and well-known figures often communicate their life stories through autobiographies, while lesser known individuals communicate a theme through specific stories from their lives.
The public wants to know the details of celebrities’ lives and is willing and eager to read through all the details of their growing up years, young adult successes and failures, and all the way to the present day.
Individuals with less of a public presence who still have valuable stories, information, or an important theme to share, but may want to do so through memoirs. This way they can still communicate their message, but use life stories that directly apply to this message to do so.
Writing your memoir allows you to use anecdotes from your life to communicate your theme. Remember, if you aren’t a household name, readers are unlikely to be interested in your stories if they don’t provide some type of value.
Always think reader-first with these questions:
- Is your theme focused on helping the reader?
- What stories contribute to the power of your theme?
- What stories distract from your theme and shift the focus to you?
- Will your reader walk away feeling empowered or inspired?
When writing your autobiography, it’s still important to think reader first, but readers are more likely to expect stories that focus on your life and the interesting things you’ve done.
If you are a celebrity or household name, writing your autobiography is likely the way to go.
Examples Of Memoirs
If you plan to write your memoir, reading other successful memoirs is a great place to start.
Here are some examples to get you started:
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
- Writing For the Soul, by Jerry B. Jenkins
- All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg
- Running for My Life, by Lopez Lomong
As you read, focus on what the theme is, what stories the author uses to illustrate this theme, and how the story isn’t focused just on the author, but on you, the reader.
Again, think reader first.
It may be helpful to take notes so that when it’s time to write your own memoir, you have examples to refer back to as needed. This will help you when you feel stuck or unsure of which stories to use.
Examples Of Autobiographies
If, on the other hand, you decide to write your autobiography, you’ll want to brush up on autobiographies and biographies instead.
Autobiographies are written by the subject being written about. Biographies are written by someone else. Often, famous individuals employ a writer to write their story rather than attempting to write it themselves. Unless they’ve garnered fame because of their incredible writing, it’s usually best to have a writer write their story. You can practice this on a small scale, have you written your author bio? It's a succinct version of the full biography.
Whether you pick up an autobiography or a biography, the same lessons can be learned:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass
- Autobiography of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemmons
- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee
- Churchill: A Life, by Martin Gilbert
As you write your autobiography, remember that although it is about you, you should still think reader first. Write in a way that readers will be able to easily understand and follow. Starting at birth and moving forward chronologically will likely work well.
Now that you know the difference between memoir and autobiography, you’ve decided which will best communicate your purposes, and you have examples of each, it’s time to start the process.
Regardless of which you decide to write, take some time to think back over your life, years or weeks that affected you in a particularly positive or negative way, people who influenced you, the themes you see tracing through your story, and dreams or goals you worked for.
Once you have the big moments at the forefront of your mind you can start planning your story in a memoir or autobiographical style.
Two Notes on Memoirs vs Autobiographies
1 – While memoirs and autobiographies are about your life and your interactions, achievements, goals, failures, etc., it’s impossible to remember every word of dialogue you have spoken or others have spoken. Readers understand that exact wording has been written to the best of your memory, but is not exact. Be careful to write in a way that reflects the attitudes and intentions of the dialogue in that moment, however many years ago it took place, but rest assured the dialogue in memoirs and autobiographies cannot be completely accurate.
Sharing your story with the world is a bold step. It’s brave to think through your life and write it all down for hundreds if not millions to read.
As you plunge into your story, writing it, editing it, and eventually publishing it, take your time. Don’t get discouraged if you need to rearrange parts, chop large portions, or add stories when you think you are finished.
Writing your story takes time. It’s your life, after all!
2 – Whatever way you choose to share your story, protect yourself by changing names, locations, and any other detail as you see fit. You can make a simple note at the front of your book explaining that some details have been changed to protect individuals. The last thing you want is to be accused of libel or slander the week your book comes out.
As you release your book, enjoy the moment. Writing your story is something many dream of, few start, and even less complete. You didn’t just have the dream, you saw it through to its completion.
You took a big step. You wrote your story and put it out into the world. Your legacy is published and has the possibility of impacting countless individuals around the world for years to come.
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