Let's Talk About Books On the Personal Side: Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Much buzz on a few of the author/writers' groups I'm a part of is understanding the difference among a biography, an autobiography and a memoir. I know we chat about this occasionally, and recently dedicated an entire issue on personal writing on WOW, but I thought it would be great to talk about it here on The Muffin too!

I know we have a few memoir writers on here--myself included--but what exactly is a memoir? What's the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? What's the deal with biographies? And can you really write more than one memoir? Hopefully with today's post, and any comments/discussion generated from it, we can take these questions down one by one.

Let's describe each of these kinds of personal books. In the most general way I can, here's how I define each of them:
  • Biographies: These are books that authors write about other people. They can be 'unauthorized' or 'authorized'. When it's an 'authorized' biography, the subject of the book usually knows about it and is aware the author is interviewing people in his/her circle but usually doesn't contribute in any way. He/she doesn't do anything to help with the writing of the book but isn't exactly putting together a law suit either. The 'unauthorized' biographies are the ones we hear about that sometimes make the headlines with negative press or result in lawsuits. The author neither has permission to write the book nor speaks to people close to the subject but, more, relies on what they find in research, their own knowledge or their own opinions of/experiences with the subject. I'm not a huge fan of biographies simply because you really aren't 100% sure if the information is accurate or true. I've read a couple that I enjoyed and trusted the sources but these reads should always be read with a grain of salt. And if you're writing one, just be sure you have reliable sources, accurate information and tell the story as spot on as you can.
  • Autobiographies: These are personal stories an author writes about her(him)self. They most often span your lifetime, sometimes even generations before your life began if it pertains to who you become. Autobiographies are usually written near the end of the life's journey or after a certain significant events that the author wants to share. I find these books to be more general than the memoir (see below) because they cover a much broader span of time and there is much more information shared. And because you are writing it, the source is a little more reliable than in the biography (well...hopefully!).
  • Memoir: I call these personal reads, "Slices of Life." Unlike the autobiographies that cover an entire life's journey, memoirs cover only a tiny part of that journey. They can focus on a a span of a few years or on a specific time along the journey or even just focus on a specific subject or issue. And, yes, you can write more than one because your life's journey is made up of several 'slices' that when pieced together make your entire story! So far, I've written two, with two more on the way!
    In addition to the above points, the one thing you have to remember when writing any of these kinds of stories is that they are still stories. That means that even though you're writing about true life events, you have to tell the stories in such a way that is still entertaining for readers. Because let's face it, even though each of us may have a story to tell it may not be as interesting to readers as it is to us. So my main tip is to craft the personal story in the same way you'd write riveting fiction: drawing the reader in through her senses, realistic and captivating dialogue and showing rather than telling.

    Now, before I go for today, let's tackle that last question: Can you really write more than one memoir? The answer is, well, yes! I've written two with two more on the way! We can only write one autobiography because once you have your entire life's story out there, the only thing you can do after that is write articles about it. And biographies? Well, you can write as many of those as you can. As long as there are people out there doing interesting things, they'll be people who'll write books about them. But memoirs are little sections, or like I said earlier, 'slices', that make up your life as a whole so you have as many books to write as you do slices. And if you write them in the right way, you'll have tons of stories to tell and a loyal audience who'll follow you along.

    Get out there and write your slice of life! I'll be watching!

    (Feel free to share your insight, experiences writing one of these stories or ask a question!)


    Marcia Chadwick Moston said...

    I like what Flannery O'Connor said about life stories: "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days."

    Chynna said...

    PHENOMENAL quote, Marcia. I've heard that one before but I think I'm actually going to write that one down now. Thank you!!!


    Linda said...

    Good stuff. I agree. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm.


    kpoe said...

    I read only authorized biographies because I'm not sure that unauthorized ones are telling the whole truth. The one that showed me the difference between these two types was Yury Mintskovsky and from him I learned that an unauthorized biography can be more attractive because it's author is trying to spice the details to make it more attractive, but in the same time the original details will suffer.

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