Memoir vs Autobiography: Key Differences


We’ve all come across things that appear to be similar but are actually different. Things such as: jam and jelly, cement and concrete, bees and wasps, boats and ships, straw and hay, rats and mice, apartments and condos- the list goes on and on. When you are attempting to understand the difference between memoirs and autobiographies, you will find the same overlap of key similarities. In fact, the terms are often used interchangeably and to be frank, there are more similarities than differences between the two. The most obvious similarity is that they are both first person accounts of the writer’s life, but as you continue reading you will discover that they often differ in terms of content and structure.


Chronology. Although both genres may be written in chronological order, memoirs tend to have more fluidity in the treatment of time and can move back and forth as warranted to support the overall message. The memoir reader will finish the story with a sense of MAJOR EVENTS in the writer’s life. These events do not have to be written in the order in which they occurred. Autobiographies, on the other hand, tend to include the events in a person’s life from start to finish-from birth to the present day. And while it isn’t necessarily a strict requirement, it is common for these to be written in chronological order. A person reading an autobiography expects it to begin with the author’s childhood and span all the way through to the actual writing of the book. Memoir writers, on the other hand, will choose a theme and use multiple stories from different parts of their lives to illustrate the significance of that theme, regardless of the order in which those events occurred.


Facts vs interiority. Autobiographies are more centered around facts. It is basically a timeline that is written in narrative form. The details regarding those events typically don’t get overly personal or delve into the author’s feelings or perceptions of all events. Due to its nature, autobiographies are under more pressure to get their facts right because their stories are viewed as a piece of history. Memoirs, on the other hand, have more freedom in this area. Because the focus is typically on a central theme or message, the writer can emphasize interiority and personal experiences. Facts do matter in a memoir, but since memoirs are more personal, it’s understood that the writer shapes the facts of his or her life in order to fit a certain theme. A memoir can focus on a real-life event, like a tragic accident, or other major life event. But instead of focusing on mere facts, a memoir will delve into the emotional impact of a significant life event and provide deeper insight into the thoughts and feelings of the writer.


Purpose. Although both fall under the category of non-fiction and illustrate what happens in a person’s life, the motive behind the two are completely different. An autobiography’s purpose is to give more information about a person’s life and typically profiles a famous or well-known person in history. Autobiographies are written about people that the public is already familiar with and wants to read about. Memoirs, on the other hand, are a lot more personal. It takes a person’s lived experience and uses it to teach a life lesson. People read memoirs because they are interested in a certain theme or subject that the writer is talking about. Or they are drawn to the author’s style.


So basically, autobiographies are mostly written about well known, people, are usually in chronological order, and often do not have an overarching theme or message. Memoirs have some sort of theme, style, or voice that the reader is drawn to and are typically written by a regular person, although well-known figures tend to like this genre too. There doesn’t have to be a particular order, and they usually only highlight one event or a few.


Please be aware, however, that the lines between these distinct genres are so blurred it can be difficult to separate on from the other. There have been chronological memoirs and autobiographies with a central theme and distinct style that readers are drawn to. The moral of the story here is to not get too bogged down by any rules. Whether you choose the memoir or the autobiography, it’s your unique legacy you are leaving to the world, so don’t allow the constraints of either genre to restrict your self-expression. Now hurry up and get writing! Can’t wait to read your story.


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