Learn the difference between these two genres and find out which one you have
What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Is a memoir just an autobiography by a different name? Although many people use these two words interchangeably, they are distinct genres and should be written differently.
How is a memoir different from an autobiography?
Memoirs typically covers only a portion of the author’s life and will usually focus on a time of intense change, growth, conflict, or struggle. It may convey a moral or perspective on life based on the author’s experiences. This type of book is often written by “normal” people like you and me and can start at any point within an author’s life. Popular examples include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.
Autobiographies, on the other hand, typically cover the events of a writer’s life from birth to present, focusing on the total trajectory of that individual’s life and highlighting many experiences from a personal point of view in chronological order. Autobiographers highlight formative instances from childhood, adolescence, and their adult years. Autobiographies are typically written by celebrities, experts, and people of significance, and contain highly researched and verifiable information. Popular examples include Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Becoming by Michelle Obama.
So, if you’re thinking of writing about your own life, which genre should you choose? The answer to the memoir vs. autobiography question depends on several factors about your topic.
When to Write a Memoir
You should consider writing a memoir if:
- You have a story worth telling. Do you have a story that others would be genuinely interested in? That might be an experience you’ve had, a circumstance you’ve overcome, a major accomplishment and the road to achievement, or something else. Successful memoirists have often been told by family, friends, and colleagues, “you should write a book.” Has this happened for you?
- Your story could help others. If your story has the potential to help or encourage others in similar circumstances, you have a duty to share it. Write the book that you wish you’d had to guide you through your most difficult challenges.
- Your story can be told with total honesty (zero embellishment!) and keep readers’ attention. If you have a good story, you’ll find that all the little anecdotes that make up the big narrative life are interesting enough without added embellishment. The language you use to impart your experience goes a long way toward making this happen.
Many of The Book Professors’ authors have written memoirs about the meaningful or gripping moments of their lives. Nicole Bell wrote about her husband’s mysterious illness. William Johnson wrote about recovering from a shooting that left him blind. Mary Jo Rennert wrote about regaining her sense of belovedness after a divorce.
Check out more ideas for memoir topics.
When to Write an Autobiography
Autobiographies tend to be less emotional. They are factually researched, historical in nature, often covering the author’s entire life to date, but less likely than memoirs to have an emotional edge or a “moral to the story.”
You should consider writing an autobiography if all of the above statements from the “memoir” section apply to you, and you can answer “yes” to the following:
- Is your life so significant that someone would be captivated by the entire experience – from the beginning until now?
Autobiographical authors such as Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama, Benjamin Franklin, Tina Fey, and Hilary Clinton have such high-profile lives that readers are naturally curious about all the experiences that shaped them. It’s fascinating to compare the public figure that you already feel you “know” against the childhood, teen, and young adult version of themselves. This is why stories of political figures and celebrities tend to do well in this genre, and why authors who don’t already lead a public life tend to write memoirs.
The choice between autobiography vs. memoir might come down to whether the public’s interest in your story is more emotional or historical. Autobiography is the more historical of the two genres.
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