Memoir vs. Autobiography

Yesterday when I wrote about memoir, I didn’t think about the difference between memoir and autobiography, but there is one. Generally, a memoir is a story or collection of stories from one’s life. An autobiography is a life story. Just to make sure that in the fullness of time, since I last taught this, that hasn’t changed, I checked. “An autobiography is a first-person account of an entire life, while a memoir uses a person’s life story to elevate a larger theme or idea.” (Source)

That’s an interesting explanation of the difference and not exactly how I have always seen it, but it works.

Every year when I do my job as a judge for an Indie book contest, I end up with a LOT of memoirs (and a few autobiographies). Usually they fall apart exactly there, on the “larger idea,” and are recitations of events that the author doesn’t want to forget (?) or wants her (it’s almost always a woman) grandkids to know. They often fall into the category many of my oral stories do, “Stream of tediousness,” a genre no one wants. Luckily for me, I’m not a judge specifically of memoir, so I get to evaluate them based on one of the categories I DO judge.

The source above makes this point, “A reader might pick up a memoir because they’re interested in the theme, rather than because they want to read about the writer.” That’s exactly it. My little memoirs are very tightly focused. As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is ONLY about one year of my life and the focus is my own personal experiences teaching in the People’s Republic of China just a few years after China opened to Americans. It’s a verbal photograph of China and the people I knew, a moment in time.

My Everest is focused on my dogs and hiking trails during the years I lived in Southern California, “exiled” from Colorado. People who’ve read it — and commented — get the bigger picture, and one comment called me a “Modern day Emerson,” leading me to one of those “take me now, Lord, it doesn’t get better,” moments. Memoirs focus on the reader at least as much as they tell a person’s life story.

My other memoirs? They are strictly for me. Back in the late 1970s when I realized I was a writer, I started writing. I’d actually been writing all my life. My life was maybe a typical late 20’s life, maybe not, but I knew I had to write about it and I did. That story was a teething ring for me as a writer. Sometime after I moved here, I found that old manuscript and read it. I thought about that young woman — so far from the woman I am now — and I felt tremendous love for her and this effort of hers, something she’d entitled, “A Vast Chain of Dancers,” quoting Aristotle, as it happens. My boyfriend at the time — to whom I sent a draft — wrote that he liked it but had problems with a “chain” being “vast.” OH well, you can’t please everyone.

Having found this thing I felt I owed her something. So much had happened in the looonnnnngggg interval and yet? I sat down and edited, having resolved not to change her voice or reveal anything about “what happened next.” In a way, it was like ghost writing. I ended up with a beautiful little book I don’t especially want anyone else to read. I sent a copy to the ONE person who would appreciate it as it was and understand the project. She read it in one sitting and definitely “got” it. Part of the book, now, is what she wrote to me.

Two copies. That’s the entire publication run. Another one, the same, a compilation of essays about hanging out with the Boys on Bikes. I recognized it as an amazing, unique experience even as it was happening and I was having fun. How many 40 year old English teachers “belong” to a group of 14 and 15 year old boys? It was strange but it was wonderful. I was called upon to explain it many, many times (like when they rode their bikes to my school and went looking for me) so I wrote about it. I was going to send a copy to one of the boys (now a 45 year old dad with his own company and kids of his own) but I haven’t sent it. Reading through it in its “book” form I saw it was less about the boys than it was about me. Another VERY limited publication run.

Early this year I compiled and edited my blog posts into a memoir about my experiences dealing with the Pandemic. Someone asked me to — who? I don’t even remember, honestly. Since I spent a LOT of time alone at the Refuge, I naturally named the book, Finding Refuge. Is it a good or useful book? I don’t know. I think I sold 3 copies, and so far it has no reviews. It’s fine with me. It was a project I did mainly for myself, but I also thought, “You never know. Someone else might find this useful, helpful, meaningful.”

Writing is sometimes an end in itself and that’s fine. However a person might hope for fame and/or fortune from their writing, ultimately, anything we write is self-expression. Even an autobiography, which seeks to tell everything factually in chronological order, is going to fail at that. Every human being has a voice and an editor (self) who is going to regard some events as more important than others. Some things people write are expressly for a particular market, but markets change over time. Back in the day, I was very interested in American popular literature of the early/mid 19th century. That journey is where I learned how ephemeral is popular art, and, at the same time, recognized how perfectly popular art reflects the people living along the vast chain of dancers. In writing about my life, I haven’t found myself reliving anything, but I have understood events more deeply.

And, of course, there are stories I will never ever ever write — at least I think I won’t. 😉

24 thoughts on “Memoir vs. Autobiography

  1. …”It was a project I did mainly for myself, but I also thought, ‘You never know. Someone else might find this useful, helpful, meaningful.’ Writing is sometimes an end in itself and that’s fine.” — I write all of my little scribbles for myself. I share with other family so they get a feel for dealing with Parkinson’s disease on a daily basis but I never feel compelled to share.
    Thank you for your discussion about writing and why.

    • You’re welcome! See? I never know but I might write something someone else “gets,” needs, responds to. THAT is the coolest thing. I once thought (years and years ago) of writing about my dad’s struggle with MS, but then I realized the only thing I could write about was MY struggle with my dad’s deterioration, his illness’ effect on me. I don’t want to write that. I don’t want anyone to read it. And, as it happens, my dad DID write about it in his own voice and he handed that piece of poetry to me. I was the audience he wanted to have it. It was decades before I understood that (the poem was always pretty clear). My dad wanted me to know. What a gift. That you share what you are dealing with with your family is an immense gift to them. ❤

  2. When I started going through all my cancer surgeries/treatments, a friend of mine told me I should write this all down–it was so interesting to her. Well, I wrote down notes but it was so I could remember when I had certain surgeries/scans/etc. But it was just for me. And it is just notes–no narratives. And my handwriting is awful, so doubtful anyone is could try to make their way through those. Interesting the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Makes total sense, though. My notes were neither.

  3. When I write about my experiences, it is more about clarifying my thoughts. The discipline of putting words slowly to paper in a coherent fashion is far more effective at that than meditating about it. It comes off as quite laconic.

    If I ever decided to write a memoir, I would probably spice it up, add a bit of exaggeration and make things far more interesting than they were at the time. Historical fiction with the emphasis on historical. If I didn’t, nobody would ever want to read it.

  4. I definitely think a chain can be vast. Just sayin’….
    I hadn’t considered the difference between autobiography and memoir, but now I know why I like memoir so much more. Shared perspectives, experiences and all that. Perhaps it’s the need to feel like you’re not alone in whatever crap you’re in or were in. The “theme” as you mention. (I’ve noticed not too many memoirs are overflowing with happy times) Diving that deep into the dark may be the barrier to getting started…I don’t know. So many possible themes! Maybe it’s not all the stuff I’ve kept, but why I’ve kept it….

    • Ah… My “public” memoirs are just stories of experiences that I think have extrinsic meaning as well as meaning to me. A lot of the memoirs I end up reading for the contest are all alike — there’s no story. Just a kind of cathartic thing, an overcoming of something, and “You can do it too” kind of thing. Clearly, self-help books based on personal experience. Sometimes there’s a story, but people have a hard time and get lost in chronology and detail, forgetting where they wanted to go. I don’t think mine do that, but they might 😉 The successful memoir — I think — is limited in time, character and place like a novel. I like writing that (sometimes on my blog) — a memory of a family picnic in the 50s in Montana, for example. I think a memoir has elements of fiction — we certainly can’t remember everything someone said in those moments, but we do remember generally how the conversation must have gone to get to the place we need to go. It’s a pretty interesting genre, I think, though I haven’t always thought so.

      • I wonder if they forget where they wanted to go because they didn’t know the “destination” when they started writing (?). I guess it’s a gift – knowing how to navigate personal experience in story form like that. Self help memoir does not appeal to me at all either. I’ve always enjoyed your posts sharing memories like you do. It’s an art form. A craft. And very interesting to me too. 🙂

        • Thank you. ❤

          I think we all fall in love with our book as we're writing, and then don't read it well when it's finished. That has certainly happened to me. I see that a lot in the books I judge. I might not recognize it if I hadn't stunted the future of my best novel by not reading it well when I thought it was finished. It took five years and two strange dreams about Truman Capote. 😀

  5. I will not be writing either a memoir or an autobiography. I write a blog. That is as good as it gets. hehe! There are far too many books that are relegated to the “sleep aid” section of the library!

  6. This is so interesting. I’ve read both memoirs and autobiographies~ some of which resemble one another at different points in the telling. I’m much more of a memoir writer. Although I don’t always remember the specifics, it’s the feelings evoked that I want to try and put in words. Since my trip, in which I barely wrote, my words have seemed a bit misplaced. Yet, I can feel them building again. I made a $500 mistake on my book; well, the printing press software and I share equal blame. It made my stomach sick….at first…and then, it hit me. My goal was not to make money on my little book. But that kids could hold the book and learn about some great things here in our area. And I want to see their faces light up with curiosity. Finley is hoping they love her along the way and enjoy the rich conversations we can have. It seems a lot of free books are going to be given to kids who
    may not have ever had the means to buy one. Undoubtedly situations like this have been pieces of my anecdotes that I continue to write~even if only for me. For the record, I think chains can be vast. Although I haven’t finished My Everest, it has been such an encouragement to me. Finding the relatable rallies the real in me. I’d so love to read you and the Bike Boys. Sending you hugs and love from SW MO. 🐾🐶💛

    • ❤ $500 is a big bite. Sorry that happened! I'm sure the kids will love Finley. The success any of our books might have is really not translatable to $$$. For me, the moments when someone has said, "Oh, I love it!" are the highest pay.

      • “For me, the moments when someone has said, “Oh, I love it!” are the highest pay.” That’s exactly how I feel too. It was a big pill to swallow, but it didn’t take long to put things in perspective! I walked for St. Jude’s when I returned from Alaska in honor of a corner student who had lost his fight with leukemia 3 years ago at 13 yrs old. My problems are puny. Hearing two year old Asher of Alaska saying, “Grammy K camping book!” And watching him flip the pages and pointing and naming scenes and things made my heart just melt. 💜💛❤️

  7. Finding Refuge is excellent — I have kept it, and will reread it periodically and find sections that speak to me at the time I’m reading it. Your experiences in the Big Empty speak to me in various ways depending on where I am at a given time, and can be very refreshing (or not) as I read about them — one this time, and a different one next time!

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