When someone wants to write about their own personal life, this is often referred to as an autobiography. There are some people who would also call this type of writing a “memoir.” Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some noticeable differences between the two – even if Amazon has lumped them together into one sales category.
What Is the Primary Difference?
From a publication standpoint, the primary difference in the memoir vs autobiography debate is the timeline that is covered in the writing. A memoir is going to only cover specific moments within the life being written about. Think of memoirs as being “selective memories.” If someone were to write about their experiences of getting married and having kids, then this would qualify as a memoir.
An autobiography is a complete chronicle of a person’s life. Not only would the experiences of getting married and having kids be in there, but so would childhood stories growing up in Seattle, going to college in Wisconsin, what it was like to find work, surviving the Great Recession, and so forth. It’s the story of a life up to the point where it is being written about.
It’s a Story of Showing or Telling
Another difference in the memoir vs autobiography debate is the difference in writing where you either tell someone what is happening or you show them what is going on. A memoir tends to be more of the show, while the autobiography tends to be more of the “tell.”
In a memoir, you’re getting more of the story. There are thoughts included that draw the reader into the situation. The descriptions used will transport the reader into that memory. The goal of the writer is to make the person feel the exact emotions that were being felt at the time the memory was being created.
Now memories are also the foundation of an autobiography, but it’s a story that is told instead of being experienced. There are fewer details, but a logical A-B-C discourse that leads the reader to a conclusion. They understand more about the person writing the autobiography and can draw connections from their own life. It’s less about the details of the memory and more about what was learned from the outcome.
The Argument for Fiction vs Non-Fiction
When writing a memoir, the goal is more to create a work that is memorable for the readers. Or, as Si Robertson from Duck Dynasty fame might say, “All of my stories are 95% true, Jack.” It’s that 5% of non-truth that makes the memoir unique. The writer knows what parts of the story are untrue or exaggerated upon. The reader, however, does not. The assumption is often made that everything in a memoir is completely true… but a memoir is not specifically classified as non-fiction.
An autobiography is generally treated as non-fiction. The goal is to offer facts that are as close to the truth as possible. Now a writer in their 80s might not be able to remember every single conversation they had with their parents from their childhood with exact detail, but the facts from those conversations will be offered. The conclusions or outcomes will be shared. This is why memoirs tend to be looked at as somewhat fictional, but autobiographies tend to be looked at as being non-fiction.
Where Memoirs and Autobiographies Come Together
Both types of writing rely on memory to be put together. Unless extensive journals are kept, memory is a pretty fickle thing. You might remember what you said to someone 30 years ago, but can’t remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday morning. As time goes by, we also tend to remember more of the good times than the bad ones, which paints a rose-colored setting on the stories that we tell. Both memoirs and autobiographies are affected by this and can be problematic if others remember incidents shared in a different way.
Ultimately the purpose of these stories is to share wisdom, to entertain, and to create a lasting legacy in some way. In the memoir vs autobiography debate, look at how a life is being shared and you’ll likely be able to determine what type of story you’re reading. Memoirs are specific memories and stories. Autobiographies are a summary of an entire life. There may be no way of knowing what is fact and what is fiction… but maybe that’s not the point.
Maybe the point is to learn something new from the experiences and wisdom of another. Both memoirs and autobiographies do that quite well.