Sunday, March 15, 2015

Memoir or Autobiography?

The Saturday writing group I lead includes five (out of 20) writers working on what they call memoirs, but they are really autobiographies: the telling of their life stories in chronological order. This week, spouse Bob Hart wrote a lengthy article on the differences between the two. I shall summarize, plagiarize, and interpolate here.

My short story which appeared in Volume II of the Florida Writers’ Anthology is a memoir. “Standoff in the Alborz Mountains” is a true experience set in the mountains outside of Tehran, Iran, where I was held hostage by a band of armed men, demanding payment to let me pass on the winding mountain road.

Samantha Dunn, journalist and award winning author, has provided a simple definition: Autobiography is the story of your life; memoir is a story from your life.

Unlike the linear plan of an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a theme, event, or choice. It can start anywhere, and can move back and forth in time.

If you are contemplating writing stories from your life, the decision is between an autobiography and a memoir, perhaps several memoirs. Before striking fingers to keyboard you should ask yourself, and answer truthfully, a series of brutal questions. Who really cares about your past? Will anybody want to read this? Is the story of my life something only my mother or my children would read, or can it be related to a wider audience?

To be effective, your writing must show what you learned, or how you changed.

Traditionally, autobiographies for publication have been written, or ghost written, by celebrities, politicians, or the notorious. Unfortunately, the lives of ordinary people man little to the reading public, unless you are an extraordinary writer who can transform the story of your life into a best seller, such as The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, or Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. While both of these have been categorized as memoirs, The Glass Castle is much more autobiographical.

Well written memoirs are popular and marketable. Unfortunately, publishers and agents reject them out of hand. However, this is not to discourage anyone from writing the story of their lives. It may be necessary or cathartic, and it might be what you need to express or unload before putting on paper what you really want to write.

If all else fails, consider using events in your life as kernels for fiction.

Veronica Helen Hart (Ronnie) is the author of The Blenders Series which features a group of adventurous senior citizens, led by Doll Reynolds. Many of the incidents in the books are variations of real-life adventures from her own life (memoirs in disguise). The full article on Memoirs and Autobiographies by Bob Hart will appear in the blog for


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Your differention is correct. Stories from your life, with a theme, etc., is well explained.