It’s easy to assume that a memoir and an autobiography are the same thing, but they’re not.
An autobiography is a life story told from the author’s viewpoint. A memoir focuses on a person’s life story to illustrate a point.
Both autobiography and memoirs are written in the first-person point of view. This article will explain, in more detail, memoir vs. autobiography so that there won’t be any chance of confusion between the two.
Memoir vs. Autobiography Writing
What is an Autobiography?
An autobiography is the life story of a person, or more specifically, the author’s life. The author’s entire life is chronicled, from birth to the present moment or the moment the autobiography was written.
Most autobiographies are written by a famous person. Celebrities, athletes, famous scientists, and people of note write the facts of their life for their fans to read. These are often not full of warm or personal stories and anecdotes. They are more fact-based.
As the reader, you’re simply being led by the author through the crucial events of the author’s entire life. These books are most successful when written by a famous person because fans will read them simply to know more facts about them.
Sometimes autobiographies don’t hit the mainstream market for readers to access until after the author’s death, like in the case of Anne Frank and her autobiography The Diary of a Young Girl.
It is intended to be a simple diary in which a frightened little girl hiding from the Nazis during the Holocaust tells her story to help her deal with her emotions. It is one of the most read autobiographies in existence.
However, it wasn’t written with a mass audience in mind. Many times, the diaries of famous people are published after they have died and are called autobiographies.
Why Do People Read Autobiographies?
Autobiographies interest readers because it makes us feel closer to a celebrity, politician, athlete, or another person of fame and note.
We often don’t know anything about these people until they’re famous, and their pasts are largely a mystery to us. We, as fans, want to know more, and we know that autobiographies tell the person’s entire life story, so we read them to connect further with the person.
Imagine if you found out that your favorite musician, or your favorite actor, grew up in the state you live in. Imagine if you found out that this person’s parents worked in occupations that your own parents had worked in. Imagine if you struggled with poverty growing up and found out that your favorite celebrity also struggled financially when they were young.
Knowing the past of these famous people helps us to connect with them, but it can also give us hope that if they made it out of whatever hardships and difficulties they faced, then we can, too.
We often prefer to read an autobiography rather than a biography because an autobiography is the story of the writer’s entire life and not the telling of their entire life by someone else. You know that the content is accurate.
You may bond more with the celebrity or writer that way. It would be like hearing LeBron James tell you about his childhood himself. That would be far more exciting than talking to someone who knew him, and they told you about his childhood.
Is Autobiography Fiction or Nonfiction?
Generally speaking, autobiographies are nonfiction as the author chronologically provides the details of their personal life.
Autobiographies entail what the authors’ childhood looked like, how they progressed in their life stages such as adolescence or young adulthood, and how eventually they became who they are today, with reference to the most significant and character forming moments in their life.
In contrast, some critics question the personal truths that are presented in autobiographies. Some argue that an authors’ assumed reality may be different from what the facts are. They also raise the concern that using a particular writing style may also distort some of the details of the real life events.
With both perspectives laid out, it is up to the reader to examine which autobiographies are truthful and which are perhaps a little bit embellished.
What are Memoirs?
Memoirs are a little bit different than autobiographies.
A memoir emphasizes personal experience with something that is bigger than the writer themselves. They have a point they are trying to make or awareness they are trying to raise about an issue, and their own personal account can assist them in making that point.
Autobiographies tend to tell you the facts of the subject’s entire life in black and white and have little to do with emotional truth. On the other hand, memoirs are when a writer shares their own memories of events or situations of their life, their own true story account, that have impacted them in such a way that they feel it’s pertinent to share with others.
Why Do People Read Memoirs?
We all know what occurred on 9/11, especially Americans, and most especially, New Yorkers.
While the story of the life of a regular guy who worked in New York in 2001 probably wouldn’t interest most people, the true story of what he experienced on the morning of September 11th, 2001, would.
We read memoirs because they are the stories of specific events that move us, told by someone who experienced these events, told in their own words.
You don’t have to have lived as an Irish-Catholic child in extreme poverty to be moved by the story that Angela’s Ashes tells. Memoir writers can make you feel something about an event that otherwise would never have touched you emotionally.
Obvious and Practical Differences
While the two genres are related, there are definite and obvious differences between the two once you really study them.
An autobiography is a largely emotionless telling of a whole life story. These life stories are often the stories of famous people or people of influence. They are written in first-person because the author is the main character.
While most people, when writing memoirs, also write in first-person, they don’t have to. Some write their own memoir in the third person.
Because autobiographies are entirely fact-based stories of the writer’s life, they have to be completely accurate, which is why they are often void of emotion.
Although a memoir shouldn’t be written like a fiction novel, it is meant to tell about just a part of the author’s life and how it affected them, so there will be some discussion about feelings and personal experiences that aren’t necessarily based on fact, but on emotion.
Take, for example, if someone witnessed historically important events like 9/11. You’re not going to get a rendition of the task force report that was conducted or released to explain all the known facts of the tragedy.
In a memoir, you’re going to get the thoughts that went through the writer’s head, the way it felt to live through such an event, and how it changed the writer. Facts are less important than impact.
To recap, let’s go back over what makes each of these genres unique.
Autobiographies cover the subject’s life and are written by celebrities, politicians, and historical figures. They tell all of the life experiences of the writer in a personal narrative.
Memoirs focus on significant events in a person’s life, emphasizing the feeling and message that the author wants to convey to the reader. The story of the author’s life is not as important as the message behind it. Usually, the subject matter deals with a specific event in history that occurred and impacted someone’s life deeply enough that they wanted to share their experience of it with others.
Both provide factual accounts. Both are told by the writers themselves, usually in the first person. While they are similar, they are not the same.