“The difference between memoir and autobiography, as far as I can see it, is that a memoir is there primarily to tell one particular story, whereas an autobiography tries to be a full account of a life,” Salman Rushdie.
If you’re sitting down to write your life story, you’re probably considering your options. When I offer prospective clients a free consultation, one of the questions I usually field is whether they should write a memoir or an autobiography.
Many people think they are the same thing.
While there are commonalities between the two genres, they are quite different in style and voice. This is a point of confusion for many. So before you begin writing your book, you must decide which option works best for you.
What a memoir and an autobiography have in common
Both types of books discuss the author’s life, as shared by you. For that reason, you would tell it in the first person. This type of storytelling differs from a biography, which you would write in the third person. This distances the reader from the author while memoirs and autobiographies tend to put the reader into the author’s shoes.
Although a memoir or an autobiography can be written in diary form, they aren’t actually a personal journal. For one thing, an author writes in a diary for himself but would pen a memoir for someone else. It’s important to remember that a memoir or an autobiography must follow the rules of literature; both must read like a novel no matter the format.
How a memoir and an autobiography differ
While both feature a person’s life and are told in the first person, the tone and voice are often night and day. An autobiography is usually more of a formal work, which often begins at birth (or early childhood) and chronologically carries through the entire life. While there are exceptions, these books often have a dry feel, focusing on facts while just touching on emotion.
A memoir, on the other hand, dives headfirst into a sea of emotion. It tends to be intimate and passionate, highlighting a portion of the author’s journey through life. Remember, a memoir pulls out an era of the author’s life to examine and spotlight, making the story’s scope limited.
Which one is right for you?
When you’re selecting the style for your book, think about how much you wish to share with your reader. If you know you want to write only about a particular period of time, and you plan to share the emotional journey of that era with your readers, a memoir is a good choice for you. If you’d like to explore the entire scope of your life from a more detached perspective, I’d recommend an autobiography.
Not to throw a monkey wrench into your decision-making process, but I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate the third option I mentioned earlier. You might consider telling your life story in the third person as a biography. I had a client who chose that option because she was a toddler during the major event of the book. Her personal memory of the event wasn’t strong, but she had a lot of details about the historical incidents, so a biography made sense.
Whether you choose to write a memoir or an autobiography, I encourage you to write your life story for others to read. Readers can gain so much from your experiences. Think of how rewarding it will be when people write in to say how much you’ve touched their lives with your book.
If you’re interested in hiring a ghostwriter, please check out my book: Your Guide to Hiring a Ghostwriter