Memoir or Autobiography?

Many people ask me the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. The explanation is simple; the execution more complicated.

An autobiography covers all the events of the narrator’s life, in chronological order. It starts at birth or childhood and goes to the present with the intent of detailing their life history. A memoir on the other hand, focuses on one or a few events in the writer’s life with the intent of spreading and teaching a specific message.

The key word in memoir writing is focus. And trust me staying in focus is hard. When writing my story of June, I thought of so many more anecdotes that could have been included. But I had to remain focused! Some of June’s tales were funny or touching but didn’t help to move the story of our relationship with her dementia along. To write a good, readable memoir, the writer still needs to follow the rules of the craft of writing. In an autobiography, although good writing skills are a must, laying everything out chronologically doesn’t require quite as much thought about tension and story arc.

I love studying the craft of writing and I love real life stories. Memoir is the perfect vehicle for my creative outlet. I think I have several more life stories to share with the world. You might want to read about the time I rafted down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, the challenge changing me and my life permanently for the better. I often think about my summers at the lake or reconnecting with high school classmates after forty years. These events changed me in some way, reconnecting me to what matters in this life.

And maybe someday I’ll be able to piece all my memoirs together and end up with my autobiography. I’ve got a way to go.


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