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. Perhaps they are masking their diffidence about writing, wanting to “get it right.”
Practically speaking, for most people, there is no difference between a memoir and an autobiography. In common speech, the terms are interchangeable.
People say, “I’m writing an autobiography” or, “I’m writing a memoir.” (It’s the word memoir that has grown not the word autobiography that has shrunk.)
But, technically (or perhaps in the historical meaning of the two words), there is a difference between a memoir and an autobiography.
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 your life and the story will leave out much that had nothing to do with the period, topic or theme described in the memoir. (This is how I used the term in the title of 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, go through your childhood and adolescence and young adulthood and middle age until you reach the present. You would include everything. Turning Memories Into Memoirs would be equally instructive as, other than the limitation we sometimes impose on the term memoir, both memoir and autobiography require dramatic development, insightful characterization, appropriate point of view, etc.
Keep the information of the above paragraphs in mind when you ask yourself what the difference between a memoir and an autobiography is.
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 women to attend West Point Military Academy, perhaps you survived a series of accidents and have lived to write about it to highlight a way of thinking, or perhaps you were raised in a religious commune in the middle of an Amazon jungle. Sometimes the focus of a memoir is less dramatic. Let’s say you were married several times and, still wanting to live in a relationship, you undertook a serious re-evaluation of your life and of your response to life and were able to turn your life around. You not only met a wonderful man or woman who was free of the hangups and problems of your previous spouses to be your mate but you were also able at last to sustain that relationship already for a number of years. These experiences, well written, will interest a larger audience than family and friends.
While all of us may have a period of our lives that will interest a large audience, fewer of us, however, have had a whole life that will interest a wide public. Barack Obama has had such a life as has Madonna. Their lives will interest a large and diverse 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.
Your family will especially want to read an autobiography. “Grandpa what did you do to launch yourself in life,” your grandchildren may want to know.”
“Mom, how did manage after your children left home?”
Of course, you can speak the responses to the questions your family may have, but a written text is an opportunity not only to create a detailed thoughtful presentation of your life it is also a great way to communicate with family that may live at a distance. And then there is always the family that is not yet born.
In conclusion: the difference between a memoir and an autobiography
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. 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 the two form—however close they may be—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 communicates more clearly to your audience.
Don’t let the difference inhibit you. Just keep writing.
Good luck with your memoir—uh, was that autobiography?