Generally speaking, an autobiography tells the story of the author’s life. Memoirs, on the other hand, focus on one aspect of the author’s life. While an author might write about his or her childhood, education, and career in an autobiography, an author of a memoir might focus on the complex time during his high school years when he learned he was adopted. An autobiography seeks to tell a larger story with some introspection and to show the activities and details that make up a life. A memoir isolates one specific event or aspect of an individual life and works toward deeper understanding. Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the year after her husband’s death, which took place while her daughter was in a coma. Augusten Burrough’s memoir Running With Scissors recounts the time during his childhood when he lived with his mother’s psychiatrist.
Both autobiography and memoir are subjective in nature. An author is recounting events in his or her own life. Still, authors of autobiography and memoir have an obligation to the truth. Some of this can be accomplished with good intentions and careful fact checking. Still, there are matters of inner experience that can be more elusive to pin down, even for writers with the most honest of intentions.
Memoir writers, in particular, face some challenges on this front. In creating a dramatic experience for the reader, memoirists use many of the same tools as fiction writers, including dialogue and scene. The memoir tells a true story by plunging the reader fully into the experience, letting the reader hear the sounds the author did, see what the authors saw and, as much as possible, experience the events the way the author did. It can be difficult to remember the exact words spoken in an exchange that happened years ago or to recreate the emotions of the moment after having time to process and reflect on them. Staying true to the spirit of the conversation can allow for dramatization, but still maintain integrity.
The distinctions between autobiography and memoir are further complicated by the fact that sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably. The term memoir also applies to a similar kind of book, one in which an author recollects and interprets a significant event. This focus outside the self is different than the inner focus in many contemporary memoirs. Knowing the distinctions can help direct the focus in your own writing.