Memoir vs. Autobiography: What’s the Difference?

A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me to share my thoughts on memoirs. While working my way through the details of a memoir, a question popped in my head: What is an autobiography? I vaguely remembered my friends interchangeably using those two terms.

I thought better late than never! I started looking through a list of impressive autobiographies and memoirs. I found some great books like Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi. It was all about his professional journey and the encounters and victories that helped him become one of the best tennis players in the world. A book like Becoming by Michelle Obama throws light on specific segments like her upbringing, victories, and disappointments in the White House. The distinctions began to surface, and I decided to delve deeper to learn the differences.

Life Account Versus Hand-picked Memories

My first impression was that an autobiography is an author’s life summary, whereas a memoir cherry-picks only parts of the author’s life they wish to narrate. So, while both genres relate to the first-person narrative of the author’s life events, an autobiography is a non-fiction story written from the author’s own perspective. It can be written by the author (perhaps with some assistance) or ghost-written. For instance, Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi was written with the assistance of J. R. Moehringer.

A memoir is the author’s compilation of their public and private memories. Simply put, it is the author’s attempt at remembering, reminiscing, and reflecting on their life experiences. For instance, Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Burroughs only focuses on the time when the author lived with his psychiatrist and other patients.

Order: Chronological Versus Random

Based on what it tells its readers, it is only logical to conclude that autobiographies follow a chronological order, i.e., from birth to present times. They can be more specific that way.

Memoirs may not necessarily be sequential; they can keep going back and forth in time. For instance, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama narrates the factors that shaped him as the son of an Afro-American father and a White American mother. It’s not necessarily about timelines.

Focus: Subject Versus Theme

Another interesting observation is that autobiographies are usually about famous personalities in business, sports, politics, arts, entertainment, etc. Hence, it will be a record of their life, rags-to-riches stories, and rise to power and fame. Or it could be about their struggles and how they overcame them, and more. Since it is factual, it needs to be accurate and written with formal and straightforward tonality and language. For instance, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller is an account of a historical figure (Hellen Keller) who was a deaf-blind lecturer, activist, and writer! It is a compelling narrative of a blind and deaf girl, her triumphs over her disabilities, school and college life, and her learning to appreciate the simple things in life.

On the contrary, readers read memoirs because they are interested in the theme rather than the writer’s popularity quotient. A memoir is a writer’s recollection of their bitter-sweet experiences and can exercise flexibility in tonality, sequence, and correctness. Again referring to Dreams from My Father by Obama, it is his detailed account of his entangled roots since his father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas, and his birthplace was Hawaii. He spent a significant period in Indonesia and was mostly raised by his mother and grandparents after his father left him during his infancy. His oscillating between the black and white worlds and understanding its uniqueness made him hopeful that he would stand unified one day.

Differing Motives

The author has varied motives behind writing autobiographies, such as leaving behind a legacy for the generations to come, unleashing their creativity, gaining a better understanding of their life’s journey, or making themselves immortal in history. The list is endless! Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is undoubtedly his gift to future generations since it not only peeks into his amazing and heroic life but also educates the masses with terms possibly alien to them, like “dignity” and “integrity.”

Memoirists like to write about their slice of life because they feel a burning desire to share a story to which they alone can do justice. Some fall back on memoirs to share untold stories, understand a situation while recovering from a trauma, or preserve a family legacy. Writing your own version of what happened helps you write your point of view like no one else. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is her family legacy and a tribute to her father since it is about the darkest time in her life—when she struggled to cope with the sudden death of her father.

Are you still unsure whether to write an autobiography or a memoir? Consider this. What interests you: facts or emotions? Chronological order or specific life events?

If it is the former for both, write an autobiography. Before embarking on the journey, ensure you are able to capture your readers’ attention. If you are a celebrity, you’ve already got your readers rooting for you. Or else, you can give your life’s story a unique perspective. Additionally, make sure you diligently research by referring to reliable sources and talking to friends/acquaintances since this is your opportunity to build credibility as an author.

However, if you like emotions and specific life events, a memoir is your calling. Make sure to zero in on a theme. It can be anything under the sun as long as you are deep-rooted in it to write a gripping account. Also, since memoirs are your life experiences, restrict your writing to your life impressions and feelings. Avoid unnecessary details.

Also, read our article: how to write a memoir.

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