December 18, 2017

What You’re Writing—Memoir vs. Autobiography

orangeThree months after I published by book, What’s Your Book?, I went to lunch with an old friend who’s been in the publishing industry forever. When I asked him what he thought of my book, he responded that he liked it, it was good, but that he was puzzled about why I hadn’t included a definition of memoir.

Good point. The truth was that I hadn’t considered it, in part because I never ask my clients to consider whether they’re writing memoir. If someone comes to me saying they’re writing a memoir, I take them for their word. I work with them to shape their work, and if their scope is too broad, I work with them to narrow it.

Then I sat on a panel in San Miguel de Allende with a bunch of amazing women, including Samantha Dunn, who stated simply, “Autobiography is the story of your life; memoir is a story from your life.”

Elegantly and simply put.

On some level, I’m always striving to help writers who are in fact doing autobiography understand that their work, in order to be memoir, must be slice of life. It must be thematic. It cannot span the entirety of a person’s life, age 0 to 60—or it shouldn’t. Having this very clear distinction between autobiography and memoir, however, helps those writers who are in fact doing autobiography to understand that there is a difference, and that the publishing industry (and most readers) are partial to memoir. Autobiographies really ought to be reserved for celebrities.

Beyond slice of life and theme, memoir has to have a takeaway, or multiple takeaways, for the reader. It may mean that you lose something in the process—beautiful writing, your story. But at the end of the day the lens that you are looking for and the story your inviting your reader into, is clear and contained.

Writing the story of your life may be a necessary process. It might be your first draft and it might be part of what you need to get out on the page before you can distill down what it is you want to write in your memoir. But the story of your life cannot and will not support your author platform. It is too big and too vague and probably too much to sustain a reader’s interest.

Consider what you have on your hands and what you’re trying to achieve. Is it the story of a life or from a life? If it’s the former, what can you do to extract the thematic core that will make your reader best able to wrap their minds around your singular (and relatable) experience?

Take some time to journal about it, and let us know what insights you come up with. We’d love to hear!

Comments

  1. This is such a helpful lense with which to view the differences. As I think about books I’ve read in this genre, yes, memoirs are, as you said, a slice of life– something that gives me a bit of insight about my own life. I thought the observation that most readers, unless you are famous, prefer a memoir was spot-on. I know I do. Thank you for helping me clarify this with such a simple phrase.

  2. Love your writing, Brooke! It’s so clear and smart. Thanks for sharing your experiences, insights, and wisdom. Your devotion and clarity inspire me—and probably countless others! I didn’t miss not having memoirs described as a genre in WHAT’S YOUR BOOK, which was FILLED with so much GREAT ADVICE culled from your years in publishing. But this is an excellent post—essential for writers who may not know the difference between autobiography and memoir, and also valuable for veterans like me, who use the clear resonance of your words to focus more diligently on themes and takeaways!

  3. I’ve been working on a book for years; it fell into the pattern of autobiography, just by my innocence of the genre of memoir. Also, I needed to write down the well-remembered parts of my life, ones that involved intense conflict. I wrote in vignettes, planning to see their structure when I completed enough of them. Aren’t there memoirs that span a person’s life, though they are non-celebrities? How about The Glass Castle? That was quite a hunk of that life.

  4. Joanne Daley says:

    I am a poet mostly, but being 71 and still viable, I do want to write about my life. I think the advice regarding just getting the writing down in whatever fashion it comes out is a good idea, because in so doing I will have given my children and grandchildren something valuable in regards to better knowing who I am as an individual, not just in my role as their mother or grandmother. Then, if I choose to publish something out of that, I will have to choose what to cull in order to find the gem in the midst of the all the ordinary pebbles a life that is 70+ years long seems to produce.

  5. Hi Brooke Warner , yes there are so many small details that add up to a full experience of a world we inhabit, a person we love, a moment in time I like your thoughts .
    Best of luck with your writing!

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