The Fundamental Differences between Memoir and Autobiography

The line between memoir and autobiography is a fuzzy one, especially in this modern literary era where writers are constantly blurring the boundaries between genres to create a new, exciting one. Like an autobiography, a memoir is a narrative that reveals experiences within the author's lifetime. But there are obvious and practical differences between the two similar genres.

In essence, an autobiography is a chronological telling of one's experience, which should include phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc., while a memoir provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer's own memories, feelings and emotions.

Memoirs are typically

  • less formal
  • less encompassing
  • more concerned with emotional truth toward a particular section of one’s life and how it makes you feel now
  • less obsessed with factual events
  • written by the subject

Autobiography is essentially

  • written by the main character or at least drafted with a collaborative writer
  • made up of detailed chronology, events, places, reactions, movements and any other relevant information that inhabited the life of the subject
  • focused on facts -  fact, above all, is its foundation

In his own memoir, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal gave his own definitions of the two genres stating, "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked."

With these basic definitions and comparisons, think about your own work. What is most important to your story: emotion or fact? Think about your intended audience and what they would find most interesting.

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