Contents of this post:
What is a memoir?
A memoir is a type of nonfiction book that tells a story about the author’s life, focusing on a specific amount of time. For instance, an athlete who struggled with a career-ending injury might write a memoir about what happened, then build on that back story to show how he or she conquered their struggles and went on to live a happy and productive life after their sports career ended. These are typically—but not always—published by notable public figures or celebrities.
The followed titles are memoirs:
- If You Ask Me by Betty White
- I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
- Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn
- Boldly Go by William Shatner
- The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman
- Finding Me by Viola Davis
- The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama
- Beyond the Wand by Tom Felton
- Horror Stories by Liz Phair
- Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry
While some experts say it’s not advisable to publish a memoir if you’re an unknown, I don’t think that should limit you if you have a powerful story to tell. But I think the hive-mind is starting to change their perspective on this attitude.
A great story should always win over the fear of what others might think.
What is an autobiography?
An autobiography, on the other hand, is typically an account that covers the span of a notable figure’s life. It’s written by the author themselves and is often a bit longer than a memoir since it covers their life both during childhood and adulthood. However, one issue tends to crop up when putting together an autobiography—the narrative typically relies solely on your memory of the events in your life.
Personally, I have quite vague recollections of my life in my earlier years, so this would require a lot of deep work—maybe even some therapy, if I’m being honest—to put together all the important events of my life. Thankfully, this is not anything anyone would find very interesting, so this is something I’ll never do. (If you want to know about my riveting years as a high school journalist interviewing my finance teacher for an article on teacher of the month, you can ask me privately. It will only take a few seconds to put you to sleep.)
Should I write a memoir or an autobiography?
Here are some questions that should help you decide which type of book you should write.
How much of your life will you write about?
The main thing that differentiates a memoir from an autobiography is the timeline. If your goal is to write about a specific event or period of your life, then it most definitely sounds like you have a memoir up your sleeve.
Do you plan on writing about events in your life in a strictly chronological order?
Memoirs can certainly be written that way, but they don’t have to be. Take the move Pulp Fiction as a cut-and-dry example. The events in this movies play out sort of like a collection of short stories, moving from narrative to narrative. Then, after you finish watching the movie, you piece it all together in your mind to get a picture of how these smaller stories work within the overall narrative.
Many memoirs tell their stories in pieces like that, driven by a particular thought, memory, or emotion. Which takes us to my last question . . .
Are you writing facts, dates, and figures, or are you driving your narrative with emotion?
Memoirs are told with strong emotion to recreate the memory or feeling of the event that took place. Because of this, memoir authors typically use storytelling techniques similar to fiction when they’re crafting their narrative. It pulls the reader into the story and puts them in that time and place to impact their emotions. A well-written memoir is powerful and leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
On the other hand, an autobiography typically deals in the facts of the memory, rather than the emotion. One of the reasons for this is because an autobiography has a long story to tell, so there isn’t a lot of time to linger on how that one event influenced the author’s life.
How can a developmental editor help me write a memoir?
One of the ways a good developmental editor can help you is through sitting down with you before you start to structure the outline of your memoir. In this way, your developmental editor also doubles as a writing coach who can help you make smart, creative decisions on how you want to tell your story. Of course, they can also help you tremendously if you involve them after you’ve written your first draft. They’ll read through your manuscript, making detailed notes on questions, issues, and strengths that pop up throughout your narrative. And, at the end of the process, you’ll have an action plan from your editor that will show you what your next steps should be as you start to revise your memoir.