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The Difference between a Memoir and an Autobiography

The difference between  a memoir and an autobiography can be rather minimal—or fairly large. “So what is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?” you may persist in asking as so many people do.

Practically speaking, for most people, there is no difference. In common speech, the terms are interchangeable. But technically (or perhaps in the historical meaning of the two words), there is a difference between a memoir and an autobiography.

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Two definitions

A memoir is about a period of a life—it is more like an experience or an episode of a life—while an autobiography is about an entire life. You might write a memoir about nursing someone with a disease, or about growing up in a subculture, or about launching a business. These are stories about a part of a life and the story will leave out much that had nothing to do with the period described in the memoir. (This is how I used the term in my book Turning Memories Into Memoirs, available singly or as part of the Memoir Start Up Package.)

An autobiography is about a whole life. You would start writing with your birth and go through your childhood and adolescence and young adulthood and middle age until you reach the present. You would include everything.

Our challenge

Most of us have done a few unique things in our lives that could set us up to write an interesting, compelling memoir. Perhaps you were among the first woman to attend West Point Military Academy or perhaps you survived a series of accidents and have lived to write about it to highlight a way of thinking.

Fewer of us, however, have had a whole life that will interest a  wide audience. Barack Obama has had such a life as has Madonna. Their lives will interest a large reading audience. The rest of us wishing to reach a larger audience would perhaps find it more expedient to write about a portion of our lives, a time when we participated in history in some definite way. This is not to discourage people from writing an autobiography for friends and family. Friends and family will almost always be an appreciative readership of everything that happened to you, but for the larger world, you might think of a unique contribution or experience you had that would be of interest to people who have not known you. So…

I believe the lesson above calls for remembering this difference between a memoir and an autobiography and respecting it in terms of understanding the needs of the audience for your book. I think this admonition has served the thousands of people who have come through my Turning Memories Into Memoir writing workshops over the years. The group is probably evenly divided between people who want to write a memoir for the world and those who want an autobiography for family. Every one who wants to write a memoir or an autobiography ought to try doing so—and ought to be reminded that they address different experience and different audiences. But that said…

The difference between a memoir and an autobiography remains really a moot matter—not of interest in itself but of interest only as it addresses audience.

Good luck with your writing.


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