Life Story Strategies: Understanding the Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography

(Each week, I will be responding, in depth, to questions I receive on my Memoir Writing Group on Facebook. The group is free, and we focus on the art and craft of writing our life stories.)

A few days ago, a new writer to our group, Billy, posed this query:

I have several ideas for memoirs I wanna write but not sure where to get started. I am a basketball coach and have been close to 30 years….This is one subject I do plan on writing but I am unsure if I should write about all of my experiences in one memoir or possibly write several. For example I started a travel team in 2013. I considered writing about just those experiences and [then write] other memoirs concerning other time periods from my coaching. Any advice from you veteran writers would be appreciated.

This is a great question, Billy, and it’s one that most individuals who want to share their story ask. How much do I include? What do I leave out? Why?

Writing your memoir is a lot different than writing your biography, which includes a more exhaustive story of your entire life. You — in a compilation of unrelated events — are more the theme than any other event or defining aspect of your life.

If we consider your biography to be an all-encompassing, chronological look at your life, a memoir is a magnifying glass into one particular aspect of your life where you want to focus on a theme, or showcase a particular aspect of who you are. Consider the four possible examples below.

  1. A musician might focus on the hardships of “making it” in the music industry, selecting the key events that helped her become an established singer/songwriter.
  2. A teacher might focus on the hardships in his life that helped him become a more selfless educator.
  3. An addict might focus on the events that led to addiction, the struggles to break the addiction, and the challenges faced every day in staying clean.
  4. A coach might focus on the road to the big state championship, which might include 3-5 experiences as a child/young adult that molded his or her unique and perhaps unconventional coaching style.

What all of these examples have in common is that the events are selected to contribute to a greater message, a greater theme, rather than serve as a nice, broad survey of what might be a very interesting life.

If I am a coach writing about the success of one particular group comprising castaways from other teams, I might include the story of when I, as a young player, was cut from three teams before an unconventional coach saw unrealized promise in my game. Because that coach believed in me, I was able to believe in the once-discarded players that took us to the championship game.

Every detail, every story shared contributes to the bigger theme of the memoir.

As a review to some, and new to others, Lee Gutkind and Philip Gerard, the gurus of Creative Nonfiction, have outlined the basic characteristics of the genre. You can see how memoir fits nicely here:

  • Has an apparent and deeper subject (it’s that deeper subject that the memoir focuses on);
  • Is timely and is also timeless;
  • Tells a good, entertaining story (has a strong beginning, middle, and end);
  • Is crafted with intent (the author is deliberate in how the story is written); and
  • Includes a reflection on behalf of the writer (written in first person).

The debate rages on whether it must all be true. Hardcore believers in the genre will tell you, affirmatively, Yes. Those who might fall a little left of the strict journalistic style of writing believe it is okay to “modify” the story in a way that contributes to the overall truth of the memoir. Those completely to the far left of the continuum will tell you that “part fact, part fiction” is perfectly acceptable to be called a memoir.

I guess you could say I’m a hardcore memoir writer with tendencies to glance a little to the left, now and then. More on that debate in another post, though!

When selecting the parts of your life to include in your memoir, the process can be a grueling one, as there are so many variables to consider. My recommendation is that you spend some time brainstorming everything that is seemingly related. Keep a running list in your personal journal (it’s for your eyes only, so no worries about being judged about what’s on your list!), and begin to narrow the field of choices when you figure out what you want your memoir to focus on.

Ask yourself:

  • What changes in me do I want the reader to see clearly?
  • What are the events that led up to those changes?
  • What events created tension in my life that are dramatic and suspenseful for my reader?
  • What events might my reader relate to most clearly?

As you can see in the questions above, you are writing for yourself, but you are writing for an audience as well. Consider both as you select the events that really represent your life story and your memoir’s focus.

Writing your memoir is a very personal endeavor. Write for yourself first; you always get to choose what you share — and when — with your audience.

Here’s to you and your story. May the words flow freely today.

Rus VW

Coming Soon: Your Story Matters: An Essential Guide to Writing Memoir, a new eBook for writers of all levels, filled with the fundamentals of memoir, suggested strategies, and takeaway prompts to help you share your life story.

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