What is the Difference between a Memoir and an Autobiography?

Woman writing her memoir by hand

Memoir and autobiography are often used interchangeably but there are marked differences between the two.

The greatest difference between them is related to focus.

A memoir has a focus that is often related to a particular season, time period or theme in your life. It is the lens through which you choose to write and share about your life. Consequently, a memoir doesn't need to contain all the background to your life, where or when you were born, who all your relations are, and where you fit into your family. As William Zinsser has said, memoir assumes that your life extends beyond what you share.

An autobiography, on the other hand, is the whole shebang. It spans your entire life. It details your life from your birth, through kindergarten, to the name of your most influential teacher in Grade 12. It extends to the details of all your loves, your first job, the highs, the lows, and all the in-between bits of your life. It is typically a chronological account.

If you are interested in writing an autobiography, there are a few considerations to keep in mind which help in determining the specificity and the detail of your autobiography.

Who are you writing for now? Which readers in the future will be interested to know about your life, and why? Are the more important elements of your life related to the era in which you lived, the circumstances you lived through (the Great Depression, World War II), the talents and knowledge you have (the evolution of opera over the last four decades), or is it who you are (musician, mayor, or mischief maker)?

In short, think history textbook when you think autobiography. Think short stories when you think memoir.

Which is it for you? Memoir or autobiography?

Click here to watch my video on this topic on my YouTube channel, Brenda Smit-James Write Your Story.

Here are other blog posts related to this topic:

What is a Memoir?

Why do We Love to Read Memoirs?

If I Journal do I need to Write a Memoir?

I Want to Write, but My Life is Hardly Inspiring

You can find links to my three most recent blog posts right here.

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1 comment

  • Brenda Smit-James

    No doubt, it is memoir for me. I can’t see why anyone would want to know the ins and outs of my life. I’m not famous or significant to that extent, so no autobiography for me. Besides which, I love to muse and memoir suits that well. I also like the way memoir is a perfect fit for working through life’s challenges. And I love to read memoirs! Enough said.

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