What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? I’ll tell you right now:
Memoirs are autobiographies without the elitist attitude.
Even though people say they’re distinct, there’s no real difference between these two terms. Especially once you start diving into what people claim the differences are.
It’s like saying a dog is different from a canine. Or a car is different from an automobile.
It’s completely bogus.
Literary distinctions like this are made up by English professors who want to sound superior.
For most nonfiction Authors, there’s no meaningful difference between an autobiography and memoir.
You don’t have to choose which one to write.
The whole idea of having to choose between them is ridiculous. This post will show you why.
Memoir vs. Autobiography: The Difference Is a Lie
Let’s start with the similarities between a memoir and an autobiography( since everyone agrees that they’re very similar):
- Both are books that you write about your own life.
- Both are written from the first-person point of view, a.k.a., the “I” perspective. Because you’re writing about your life story, that’s a no-brainer.
- Both are based entirely on real-life experiences. The Author might get creative with the style, but it’s a true story.
Now, let’s look at the commonly accepted differences.
Famous Authors vs. Not-Famous Authors
Some people will tell you that anyone can write a memoir about their personal experiences.
But then they’ll say autobiographies can only be about famous people. They argue that people read them to learn about a famous person just because they’re famous.
That distinction is obviously made up by stuck-up literati assholes.
Who in their right mind would argue that we need to have two entirely separate genres of first-person books just because some people are famous and others aren’t?
Every person’s life is important. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone who wants to write a book should.
Anyone who says otherwise is an elitist prick.
A Whole Life vs. Part of a Life
Literature professors will tell you that an autobiography covers the Author’s entire life, from birth to publication. Memoirs, on the other hand, only cover part of a life. It might be about a specific event or a set of specific dates from the Author’s life.
Again, that’s ridiculous.
First of all, no book covers an ENTIRE life.
Is there a difference between writing about your childhood, teenage years, and all the way through your big invention, versus just writing about the development of the big invention?
Maybe. But this decision isn’t about whether you want to write an “autobiography” or a “memoir.” It should be about what will be most interesting to the reader.
Making some artificial distinction between an autobiography and memoir puts the focus on the wrong thing. It makes the book more about the Author or the book itself than about the reader.
No one writes a book entirely for themselves. If they do, it’s not a book. It’s a diary.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. Diaries are great. But there’s no reason to publish a diary.
Even if you’re writing a memoir to tell your story to your friends and family, you’re writing for someone else. A small audience is still an audience.
That means that you should always keep your readers in mind when you write a book.
Readers don’t care whether your book is a “memoir” or “autobiography.” They care whether it’s entertaining, helpful, or enlightening.
Chronological Order vs. Moving Back-and-Forth
These just get dumber and dumber.
Most other websites will tell you that autobiographies and memoirs are both written mostly in chronological order.
But genre purists insist that autobiographies are strictly chronological, whereas memoirs are mostly chronological but might have some flashbacks or move around in time.
So, here’s a philosophical question: if a famous person writes the book, but it jumps around, is it an autobiography or a memoir?
That’s because the whole distinction is completely made up.
Tell your story in the order that makes the most sense and that’s most entertaining to the reader. Period.
Facts vs. Emotional Experience
Whoever decided that an autobiography contains facts while a memoir focuses on emotional truths is full of crap.
This “distinction” ties back to the idea that only famous people write autobiographies. So, naturally, their readers picked up the book to learn FACTS about the famous person.
That might sound a tiny bit logical until you actually start to think about it.
When have you ever picked up a book that only listed facts about someone and actually read the whole book?
They were born here.
They grew up there.
They liked pancakes.
They didn’t like beets.
Be honest. You wouldn’t read that. No one would read that nonsense.
Lists of facts are dull, and no one is going to read a book that’s just a list of facts (that, in itself, is a fact).
People connect with stories about people.
All great books about anyone’s life are the stories about the emotional experience of that life.
People read memoirs and autobiographies to learn something about their own lives through the life experiences of others.
Anyone who tells you there’s a difference has an elitist attitude.