Be honest. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? It’s a very popular genre of writing right now, and more and more memoirs are being published today, especially ones written by women.
An aspiring writer asked me recently to define memoir versus autobiography. First of all, I told him I was not an expert on memoirs. I have read my fair share of them, and I’ve started to write one based on the river journals I kept while walking a path by a river for a full year. But to be honest, I’ve given a lot more thought to what makes novels work, since that’s what I predominantly write.
What I do know about writing, in general, is that it’s very helpful to read a lot of whatever you are trying to write. So if you’re writing a memoir, it would likely be helpful to read other memoirs. There is an extensive list in Beth Kephart’s book on memoir writing called Handling the Truth. Many of the memoirs she suggests are in the library. I know this because I’ve checked them out.
From my understanding, autobiographies are linear and are about the span of an entire lifetime. They are usually about famous people who did great or infamous things. Autobiographies are considered old-fashioned these days.
Writing a memoir, on the other hand, focuses in on a key moment in the writer’s life (like a year spent walking a path by the river) and how life changed afterward and any insights that were gleaned from the experience.
Memoirs are often about ordinary people who have done something extraordinary–think Cheryl Strayed’s, mega-bestseller, Wild. Or they are about something powerful and out-of-their-control that happened to the writer–like a car accident or a plane crash, or losing a partner to AIDS. (Mark Doty wrote an exceptional memoir on this called Heaven’s Coast.) The writer tells the story of how they overcame, survived and thrived during this highly dramatic event. More rarely, memoirs are about an ordinary life that is written about in an extraordinary way. You have to have some major writing chops to pull this off.
Good memoirs are full of drama and emotion: the high points and the low points of an event or a life. So if you spend time writing about jobs, moves, best friends in third grade etc., a lot of that won’t make for a strong memoir unless it directly relates to this dramatic thing that you did or that happened to you. The logistical elements of a person’s life are more autobiographical in nature and are not really interesting to readers unless you are a president or a pope. And sometimes they aren’t even interesting then.
Of course, if you indie or self-publish you can do anything you want. You may write your memoir as a cathartic exercise and only for your eyes. However, if you hope that more than your family and a few friends read it, you need to think about what’s interesting in your life and write about it in a compelling way.
Fiction and non-fiction (in this case, memoirs) are similar in that the STORY is key. No matter what you’re writing, you need to write a really good story. A story that will captivate a reader’s imagination and keep them turning the pages. Whether the main character is you — in a memoir — or a fictionalized protagonist, these characters need to be someone that the reader can root for and want to take a journey with for the entire length of a book.
So that’s my 2 cents on writing a memoir versus an autobiography. It is perhaps a tad simplistic, so if you know more than I do please weigh in. Experts are more than welcome. In the meantime, have you ever thought of writing a memoir? xo