What is the Difference Between a Memoir and an Autobiography?

Memoirs and Autobiographies share a lot in common, but let's review the most frequently-cited ways to distinguish a memoir from a 'classic' autobiography.

A memoir is a type of autobiography. In the same way that Alzheimer's is a type of dementia. You can have dementia and not have Alzheimer's disease. You can write an autobiography and not necessarily have written a memoir.

Often, the terms memoir and autobiography are used interchangeably. Arguably, they share more commonalities than differences.

Similarities Between a Memoir and an Autobiography

  • These are life stories
  • Written by you, in a first person account
  • Both are non-fiction, true, personal accounts of real events

Differences Between a Memoir and an Autobiography

Let's review the most frequently-cited ways to distinguish a memoir from a 'classic' autobiography. Please note, these are generalizations. There could be pieces of writing that don't perfectly fit either definition. That's okay.

The Focus

Memoirs tend to focus on a particular period of time of a person's life or specific events. Sometimes there is a theme or a subject matter within one's life that gets examined. Alternatively, autobiographies tend to focus on the person's life as a whole.

The Order

Memoirs generally move back and forth through time, whereas autobiographies follow a chronological order of events. Many start at birth and more or less go on to proceed through the events of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc.

The Approach

Memoirs have a reputation for being more emotional than classic autobiographies. They place a greater emphasis on the internal experience, thoughts, and feelings of the writer at the time the events being described. On the other hand, autobiographies are known for putting a greater emphasis on facts and providing a detailed history.

The Author

Somewhere along the way, we seemed to decide as a society that memoirs can be written by anyone and autobiographies are reserved for important, famous individuals. A bit absurd and elitist, but we're just the messengers here.

Well, there you have it. These are not hard and fast rules. There are always exceptions, of course. That said, hopefully this helped you understand some of the different connotations associated with memoir and autobiography.

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