Memoir vs. Autobiography

Saturday, April 05, 2008
I have a question. What is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?

About a week ago I was trying to hunt down a new “memoir” at my local library. It turned up in the autobiography section. This led me to think about the differences between memoir and autobiography. Even in the publishing world, the line between the two genres seems blurry.

From my experience, autobiographies tend to have a historical element to them, an author telling the story of the events of their lives in sequence. It seems like the events of the person’s life take center stage in the book. Memoir, on the other hand, seems to focus not only on the sequence of events but the author's inner struggles and feelings.

It is like memoir takes the reader to coffee and intimately tells them the real story, the juicy details. Memoir takes the bald-face facts of particular events (or one specific event) and interprets the facts through the writers’ eyes. This leaves room for analysis, conjecture, feelings and, I think most importantly, how the writer’s experiences fit into the greater human experience.

I do not mean to slight autobiography, however. Some people’s lives are so interesting they ought to be chronicled from start to finish. I think that memoir and autobiography are not interchangeable terms and their difference lies in the purpose of the work. The purpose of autobiography is to highlight events, people and places. The purpose of memoir is to take an event and make the writer’s feelings and experiences real and relatable to the reader. If a person’s life stands alone and they tell a story about themselves in terms of history, that seems to be an autobiography. If the story is the author’s retelling of their life circumstances, replete with how they felt in the moment and how they felt afterwards, then this would seem to be memoir.

That about sums up my internal speculations about the difference between the two genres. I would love to hear from some of you that know more than I do about this topic. (Hint, hint.)

by Susan Eberling


Cher'ley said...

I'm certainly not sure, but I've heard that a memoir is a specific event and all the details of that part of a person's life.

Anonymous said...

The whole thing is pretty slippery, and some online sites don't even list memoir as a category, so you have to call your memoir an autobiography, though much of the difference has to do with length of time portrayed.

A memoir is a snapshot of a significant event in a person's life,whereas autobiography is more of a broad, sweeping portrayal of one's personal history. But if you call your historical musings "memoirs," the scope can be much expanded. Even the dictionary provides several different definitions. Go figure.

Shonell Bacon said...

I usually look at autobiographies as a representation of a person's entire life; whereas, a memoir examines one facet of that life.

Jerry Waxler said...

The definition is easy. It's figuring out who is obeying the definition that's hard. Consider this strange example: the "memoir" Color of Water by James McBride covers not only his whole life but also his mothers! It's a huge span of time. And if you look at the focus, at first it seems like it might be the author's relationship with his mother, and who she is, then it expands. Throw in race relations in America, and the author's career, family relations, surviving hardship.... Somehow it's a memoir. And it sold "more than a million copies."

Memory Writers Network

Cheryl Elferis said...

A memoir explores and uncovers a more intimate view of the subject, whereas an autobiography can be purely a historical reporting. In a memoir, the reader becomes emotionally involved with the characters.
Cheryl Elferis, author
"Affectionately, Toots - My Mother's Journal"

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