memoir or autobiography

Memoir Or Autobiography – What’s The Difference?

Much as I love reading fiction, I also enjoy a well-written memoir or autobiography.  Many people think those terms are interchangeable, but there is a clear difference.  

Memoir

A memoir is written about a specific time or event in the author’s life, which can span a few weeks to many years. For example: living in a foreign country, (A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle), coping with an illness (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi), the aftermath of a divorce (Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert) and overcoming an addiction (In My Skin by Kate Holden).

A memoir may also focus on a particular theme, for example : relationships (Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro), coming of age (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), the quest for better health (Year of No Sugar by Eve. O. Schaub) and the pursuit of happiness (The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin).  

Autobiography

An autobiography is the story of a person’s entire life written by the person themselves, which may encompass a variety of themes. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Life by Keith Richards, Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin and The Story of My Life by Helen Keller are a few well known examples.

Everyone has a story

But you don’t have to be famous to write your memoir or autobiography. If you think your life story, or a portion of it, would be of interest to other people, you can write it and do one of two things – submit it to a traditional publisher and wait forever to get a response and probably a rejection, or publish it yourself and put it up for sale on Amazon and other book retail sites. Ten years ago this would not have been possible, but with the advent of e-books there’s been an explosion of memoirs and autobiographies in the market.

Find your niche

Before I wrote my memoir Making the Breast of it – Breast Cancer Stories of Humour and Joy, I researched breast cancer memoirs already published on Amazon. I found a sprinkling of humorous memoirs, but they were definitely in the minority, so I decided to make it my focus. Or rather, it was already decided for me; due to my way of looking at the world, it would have been impossible for me to write a memoir without a strong vein of humour.

And though I knew it would only appeal to a small, defined niche of readers (those who had experienced breast cancer) it didn’t deter me from writing it. Writing an account of my diagnosis and treatment, as well as my thoughts and emotions during the time, helped me to gain clarity and perspective on the whole experience. And if my memoir has an impact on other breast cancer survivors, even just to provide a few laughs or reassurance that they’re not the only ones who have weird thoughts in times of anxiety, even better.  

You, too, can be immortal

Many people want to write their memoir or autobiography, but have no desire to publish it. They want a record of their life for posterity only; to be handed down through the family so that their children, grandchildren and future generations can get to know and understand their forbears and what life was like for them. Not only are you achieving a little piece of immortality, but memoirs and autobiographies are a useful historical tool for researchers and writers.

I remember when I was a child my grandmother telling me stories of her childhood, and later wishing I’d had the interest and initiative to write them down before she died. The same with my mother. So many anecdotes, facts and insights into living in past times lost forever.  

History isn’t about dates or places or wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.

When reading accounts of past eras, I always find the minutiae of day to day living the most fascinating. This is why I tuned out of ancient history lessons at school. ‘Who cares about the dates of the Peloponnesian wars?’ I wanted to shout at my teacher, who, fittingly, seemed as ancient as those wars, ‘I want to know what it was like to live back then. What did they have for breakfast? What games did the children play? How did they wash their clothes? How old were the women when they married? What did they do for entertainment?’

(It would have been to no avail anyway – our ancient history textbook was a huge tome, crammed with tedious dates and wars and invasions, and only useful as a doorstop or whacking your neighbour when the teacher left the room).  

Leaving a legacy

By writing your memoir or autobiography you're leaving a legacy of information for future generations. When researching past eras, you can always find facts and statistics, but nothing beats a personal account of what it was like to live in a certain era and insights into how changing society (because change is the one constant over the centuries), whether it be technological, economic or social, impacted not only on daily life but on prevailing attitudes and emotions.  

Do you intend to write a memoir or autobiography one day? Or have you read an outstanding one you’d like to share with us?

I’ve love you to contribute your comments in the comments box below.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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