One of the most common mistakes I see folks making is mistaking autobiography for memoir. This is a costly mistake that leads to lots of rewriting. So let’s take a moment to unpack the difference between the two in order to get you off on the right foot and streamline the process.
Autobiography is the story of your life. It’s often told chronologically, from birth to death, with events highlighted in the order they occurred.
If you’re famous, folks will want to read your autobiography. Otherwise, these are usually written as legacy projects, intended for family members and loved ones.
Memoirs cover a particular time, theme or transformative event. They’re shaped, molded and rewritten into story form so that the reader undergoes her own journey in the reading process, learning something along the way.
The best memoirs read like novels, with fully fleshed-out characters, dialogue and scenes that unfold in a compelling manner (like Tara Westover’s bestselling Educated). They’re built around a central question, with something needing to be solved, figured out or transformed.
Why This Distinction Matters
If your goal is to write a book that appeals to larger audience, then you might consider writing a memoir.
If you want to share your story with your loved ones, then an autobiography probably makes more sense.
It’s important that you decide which path you’re taking early in the writing process so that you can shape your writing appropriately.
Let’s be frank: a legacy autobiography project will be much easier to write than a memoir. What matters to your family is going to be different than what matters to a stranger on the street. And as far as craft and technique go, our loved ones tend to be more forgiving.
If you want to reach a wider audience with your memoir, then it’s important that you learn the proper craft and technique of writing memoir. (This isn’t as easy of a process as it might seem. More on this in my next post.)
If You’re Writing an Essay
On a final note, the distinction between autobiography and memoir also holds true while writing essays. I recently had the opportunity of meeting a couple of NY magazine editors. Both espoused shaping and crafting your piece in an enticing manner.
One of the clear take-aways that they wanted us to know:
Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting. A good piece also needs to be well crafted.
If you can do both, then you’re on your way to writing a story with teeth.