You may be considering writing a book about your life, especially if you lived through memorable world events or experienced life-changing incidents closer to home. When writing a first-person account about your life, you have a choice of two genres: autobiography or memoir. At Writer’s Relief, we know many writers are confused about the distinctions between these two seemingly similar ways to write about oneself. Here are the differences between autobiography and memoir, as well as writing tips to help you get started.
Autobiography Or Memoir: The Main Differences
An autobiography is a first-person account of the author’s entire life, and the writer is usually someone famous: a celebrity, business figure, sports player, or politician. Autobiographies are usually written later in life and are meant to chronologically detail the facts and dates of the author’s life, with an emphasis on the rise to fame, power, or money.
Using straightforward language and chronological narration, an autobiography is usually formal and factual. If you decide to write an autobiography, be sure to do your research—just as if you’re writing a history book about yourself. Fact-checking is very important.
Aspects of your life that you should mention include details about where you were born and brought up, your education, career, life experiences, challenges you faced, and your key achievements.
Examples of well-written autobiographies include:
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
While a memoir is also a first-person account of an author’s life, it focuses more on a person’s memories instead of a historical, factual account. There may even be a larger theme beyond the author’s own story. Because of this, the person writing a memoir doesn’t have to be famous, since readers will be interested in the theme as well as the author’s life.
A memoir is considered creative nonfiction and usually has a different tone than an autobiography. Memoirs are more subjective and allow the writer to emphasize personal experience in order to create intimacy and emotional truth. The memoirist is not bound by autobiographical conventions of historical accuracy. Authors are allowed to play with their memories in order to tell a good story.
If you want to write a memoir, it’s important to focus on your emotions and interiority. You can tell events out of order or with a few embellishments. The point of the narrative is your theme and memories rather than an accurate account of your life story. It’s less of a historical account and more motivated by the message you wish to pass on.
There are many factors that can affect the success of a memoir: How much should you include? Where do you start? And most importantly—how do you write a memoir that will be interesting to others? These questions and more need to be answered when you’re trying to write a great memoir.
Examples of well-written memoirs include:
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
- The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
- Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
- This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Should You Write An Autobiography Or A Memoir?
When determining whether to write an autobiography or a memoir, it’s important to know what you’re hoping to say with your work. Are you trying to set an example to others through your life, and are you famous enough to warrant an autobiography? Or is there a message from your memories that you’re hoping to share through a memoir? For inspiration and more guidance, read through some of the autobiographies and memoirs listed in this article.
And when you’re ready to query literary agents with your book, remember that Writer’s Relief specializes in researching and targeting the best markets for your work! Learn more about our services here.
Question: What events from your life would you highlight in a memoir or autobiography?