By Liz Alterman
A few years ago, I told a friend that I’d nearly finished writing a memoir. She knew that it focused on the period my husband and I—both in our mid-to-late forties—were laid off simultaneously and struggling to get our careers and marriage back on track. Yet that didn’t stop her from suggesting “a surprise pregnancy cliffhanger ending.”
That’s when it occurred to me that not everyone knows that memoir, derived from the French mémoire, meaning “memory,” is a work of nonfiction. Even when people are aware that this genre is rooted in fact, they often think it is interchangeable with autobiography.
While these first-person narratives have plenty in common, they’re also quite different. Where do they overlap and how are they dissimilar? Let’s take a look.
Both Tell the Story of the Author’s Life
Autobiographies usually unfold in chronological order, beginning from early childhood and continuing through present day. They can certainly include flashbacks as the story evolves, but most follow a linear path.
Memoir, on the other hand, typically focuses on a snapshot in time or a life-defining period rather than spanning the author’s entire life. They shine a spotlight on an aspect, such as an illness, an unusual childhood or career, and include reflections on how those circumstances shaped them, often culminating in a lesson learned or a message that leaves readers feeling their time investment was worthwhile.
Memoir can be a collection of essays unified by a common theme or occurring within a set window of time, like Annabelle Gurwitch’s You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, which centers around the author’s living situation after her marriage ends and her child leaves for college. Memoir can also told through verse as Jacqueline Woodson does in her National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming.
Both Seek to Enlighten
Autobiographies are crafted to illuminate the early beginnings, education, and career of a famous person, such as an historical figure. Examples include The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, which details the author and lecturer’s challenges and journey to overcome them, or The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which showcases the inventor and founding father’s wit and irreverent wisdom as he lays out his life story.
Memoirs can be written by anyone who believes they have a tale to tell. Consider The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, an American poet who shares her final months as a mother facing terminal cancer, or The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, chronicling the author’s far-from-ordinary childhood which fosters a lifelong resilience.
Autobiographies Focus on Facts While Memoirs Focus on Feeling
While many autobiographies showcase the author’s character and personality through the tone and events described, they may have a more journalistic feel, covering all the facts readers would hope to learn about the subject.
Memoirs embody a more voice-driven approach, engaging the reader on a personal level. They’re not as date-time-and-place driven, but rather explore scenes and memories that hang together to support a larger message or theme that offers readers insight into their lives.
How Do You Decide?
If you’d like to share your life story and are wondering which genre—autobiography or memoir—better serves your purpose, there are a few ways to determine the right option.
Is there a single incident that set others in motion that molded you into the person you are today? Do you have a theme or message you wish to impart through a collection of vignettes? If your answer is yes, memoir would work well.
Memoir requires that the author dig deep emotionally so readers can relate and empathize. Writing a memoir can serve as a catharsis or a way to come to terms with a difficult time or situation, which can be healing. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourttold NPR’s Terry Gross how writing his beloved memoir shifted his perspective.
“I’ve gone back [to Ireland] a number of times, but always with a chip on my shoulder, a sense of anger. I got a lot of the stuff out of my system by writing the book, and I feel much more comfortable…” McCourt explained.
If you’re more interested in preserving your history in an orderly timeline with an array of anecdotes at various ages and stages and enjoy research and fact-checking dates, try autobiography.
You can also ask yourself: “What’s my goal?” Do you hope to publish this story or share it only with friends and family? Considering your target audience may help you decide the better vehicle for your story.
Whether you choose to write an autobiography or a memoir, it will likely require a great deal of time and effort, so starting out with a clear idea of which style best suits your narrative can help serve as a roadmap. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t change course once you begin.
Either way, capturing your life story is a way to preserve your legacy and enlighten readers at the same time.
Liz Alterman’s work can be found in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parents, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. She is the author of a young adult novel, He’ll Be Waiting, a domestic suspense novel, The Perfect Neighborhood, and Sad Sacked, a memoir that chronicles the period she and her husband were mutually unemployed. Liz lives in New Jersey with her husband and three sons. When she isn’t writing, Liz spends most days reading, microwaving the same cup of coffee, and looking up synonyms. For more of her writing, visit her website.