Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography

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Memoir and Autobiography

For every bibliophile, books offer solace that is hard to come by in any other thing. Someone passionate about books will probably tell you that memoir and autobiography are two distinct forms of writing which can’t be synonymously used for each other. But is the difference this commonplace? More often than not the two terms are used interchangeably because the line differentiating the two is blurry. However, it is vastly clear that the two forms of writing are miles apart because of their distinct features. This blog will vividly portray the differences between a memoir and autobiography so that the next time you pick a book, you will have no know qualms in identifying it.

“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.” ~ Paula Danziger

What is a Memoir & What is an Autobiography?

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A memoir is an account of a particular memory of an individual’s life, focussing on a specific phase of a person’s life. It is limited to a distinct segment or phase from a person’s life and is more intimately linked to the writer’s experience of the memory and the emotions they underwent and lessons learnt during that phase.

Types of Memoirs

  • Narrative
  • Poem-based
  • Graphic
  • Fictionalized
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An autobiography is a tale of a person’s entire life told chronologically to create an essence of the life lived by the individual in his own words. It is written by the person himself and narrates the story of their life. It is the way the person would like to present the story of his life to an audience. While if someone’s life story is written by another person, it would be referred to as a Biography. 

Types of Autobiographies

  • Thematic
  • Fictionalized
  • Religious
  • Intellectual

Difference Between a Memoir and Autobiography

Now that you know the basic meaning of the two, let’s explore the key differences between Memoir and Autobiography:

Memoir Autobiography
Expresses the emotions from a special phase of the individual’s life Encompasses the entire life of the individual
Can be written in any order about a consequential memory   Written chronologically to make it more meaningful
Greater importance is given to emotions, experience and learnings Greater emphasis on dates, facts and accuracy
Less formal because of an easy flow of writing More formal due to the constricts of writing
Examines the emotional truth  Examines the factual truth 
Written by the person  Others can help to facilitate writing

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anais Nin

Entire Life Story vs Memoir

Usually, an autobiography includes every fold of a person’s life, right from childhood to the age the person is writing it. It is thereby more comprehensive and provides an extensive insight into the life of the individual. In other words, it is the story of the life of the writer. Although at times certain may be more focussed than others, as a whole it narrates the entire life story of the person. Memoirs, however, are based on a special episode of a person’s life that holds a special place to their being and is therefore essentially put in words.

Chronological vs Arbitrary

Another major difference between a memoir and autobiography is the structure of the text. When picking up an autobiography, one expects it to start at the very beginning namely, childhood and through the course of the work progress into different phases of life though it can be told differently as per the writer’s choice. A memoir is an appropriation of a specific memory and thus doesn’t follow an orderly structure in its course. It is flexible and moves back and forth between time resulting in more dynamic work. It is enlightening in the way of providing a conceptualization of the major event that happened to the writer.

“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
― Stephen King

Emphasis on Emotion vs Literal Representation

Memoirs are zestful and explore the events that shaped the writer’s life emotionally. It is intimate and more personal of writing and helps in discerning the impact of the event on the individual. It is a part of the memoirist’s life and is, therefore, more closely linked to the person. An autobiography is a record of every happening in a person’s life, organized systematically and putting special emphasis on the accuracy of the writing. It is less personal and considered an important source of history to understand the time and society from when the person lived. People also read Autobiographies to explore an individual’s life journey and have an understanding of how life functioned during the writer’s time.

Less Formal vs More Formal

Memoirs have an easy flow and provide a familiar insight into the life of the person. In essence, it is more cathartic and carries the truth of the person’s life to the readers without being constricted by rigid norms of writing. Autobiographies are crafted in a fixed structure and don’t involve variations. It portrays the life of the individual often from a dispassionate perspective and is bound by the austere rules of writing a life history of one’s self without lending it an essence of individuality.

Writing Credentials

A memoir is how a person remembers their own life and therefore it has to be necessarily written by the subject while for an autobiography, the events can be recorded by the individual or be drafted with the help of an external source or individual. This is another major difference between a memoir and autobiography reinstating the degree of emotional portrayal in the two forms of writing.

Similarities Between Memoirs and Autobiographies

There are plenty of similarities between Memoirs and Autobiographies. Both forms of writing are focused on re-telling life stories and prominent incidents that have impacted the author’s life. Another similarity is that both forms of writing are personal accounts, hence, the writer is generally the person whose story it is. Another commonality is that these stories are written as first-person account to increase intimacy between the writer and reader.   

Example of a Memoir and Autobiography

Written by one of the greatest leaders in the world, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom‘ is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It is about his belief in the struggle against apartheid, it is a narrative of his life from his childhood upbringing to his fight against apartheid and beyond the victory. A reader becomes aware of the conflicts meted out to him and his struggle against discrimination despite all odds. 

Dare Not Linger is an unfinished memoir written by Nelson Mandela which emphasizes on his years as the President, his experiences, learnings and enlightenment. It is an inspirational account from Mandela’s Presidential term and the title was inspired from the last line of his autobiography ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’. It is originally based on an unfinished memoir and was published after Mandela’s passing. 

Both these books are written by Nelson Mandela but ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ is an autobiography of his life and struggle with Apartheid while ‘Dare Not Linger’ shares a certain phase of Mandela’s life when he was elected as the President of South Africa and the challenges encountered during the time.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

Best Memoirs & Autobiographies of All Time

10 Best Memoirs Ever Written 10 Best Autobiographies 
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert Wings of Fire by A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and Arun Tiwari
Becoming by Michelle Obama The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
A Promised Land By Barack Obama  Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi 
Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller I Am Malala by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward Sach Kahun Toh: An Autobiography by Neena Gupta
The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs by Urmila Pawar, Maya Pandit I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

We hope this blog has dispelled all your doubts about the differences between a memoir and an autobiography. Interested in pursuing creative writing courses? Our Leverage Edu experts are here to help you find the best program and university as per your interests and preferences! Sign up for an e-meeting with us today and make an informed decision towards a highly rewarding career in writing!

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