What’s the Difference Between an Autobiography and a Memoir?

Autobiography, from the Greek Auto (self), bio (life) and graphein (to write), is a book written about one’s own life. Distinguished from a biography, which is an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

Famous autobiographies include:

The difference between an autobiography and a memoir exists within the scope of a book. Autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject; they might employ structural devices that take you backwards and forwards or even start at the end and finish at birth, but they ultimately tell the story of an entire life.

Memoir, from the french mémoire, is generally concerned with specific incidences or eras (e.g. a war memoir). Although background may be given to other periods, the focus is thematically placed on an aspect of life rather than life in its entirety.

Natalie Goldberg calls it “The study of memory, structured on the meandering way we think.” As such, a writer has more freedom to explore within this genre. She continues, “Memoir doesn’t cling to an orderly procession of time and dates. Rather it encompasses the moment you stopped, turned your car around, and went swimming in a deep pool by the side of the road.”

‘Who’ is the centre of an autobiography; we know the author – he or she is a politician, a celebrity, an icon of some kind – and the book gives access to the complete details of their life, where they came from, how they got where they were, the troubles they have faced.

‘What’ is the focus of memoir; we often don’t know the author, but they have experiences to delight or horrify us, for us to learn or recoil from.

Examples of great memoirs include:

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer … @hayleystories

Living Truthfully: The Freedom from Fear

BBC Three Comedy-Drama In My Skin and The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck

Teenager Bethan’s mentally ill mother has been sectioned again, and her useless, living-room-masturbating, biker dad is a cruel drunk who’s on a different planet. But …

“Dad? He’s an accountant,” she tells her friend, smiling. “He’s lovely. I’m lucky to have them.”

Lies, lies, heart-breaking lies. And I want to get inside the TV and hug little Bethan in BBC Three’s raw comedy-drama In My Skin. Tell someone! Tell anyone what you’re going through. (I can get quite involved with the TV). Take a deep breath, be brave, tell the truth. But it’s easier said than done when you’re sixteen years old and the other kids are constantly on the lookout for any stick to hit you with. It’s terrifying at any age, and even when Kayleigh Llewellyn wrote the outline of the show, which is based on her own childhood, and sent it to producers, her first thought was that she had exposed herself too much.

Why does the truth have this effect on us?

It’s almost as if we spend our lives guarding our darkest secrets, shielding ourselves from the gaze of others, but what if these authentic parts are our most beautiful and human? What if sharing them brings us closer to other humans and genuine connections? What if people can only really know us when we dare to tell our truths? What if the rewards of honesty outweigh those of vanity and self-preservation? This was clearly the case for Llewellyn, who had been a struggling screenwriter for years. The producers snapped up this story.

And it’s what Bethan’s English teacher is desperate for her to do when she encourages her to stop writing generalised empty verse, with seagulls as a metaphor for love, the grit of industrial life in Wales and other big issues of which she has no experience – and start giving something of herself, something real.

But it’s an exercise in bravery that only time and experience can teach us, as we slowly toss the occasional truth in with the washing, sprinkle a bit on our partner’s dinner or pour a little in a friend’s glass at the bar and hopefully get a reaction that doesn’t scare us too much. Ideally it encourages us to slowly peel back even more of our layers and move towards true authenticity.

The rewards, if one can reach this point, are innumerable. M. Scott Peck sums it up in The Road Less Travelled:

Open people are continually growing people. Through their openness they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively than closed people. Because they never speak falsely, they can be secure in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illumination and clarification. Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. They do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. They need waste no effort covering their tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

Freedom from fear. I love that.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer.  @hayleystories

If You’re Going to Write, Write Every Day or Pay the Price

If I don’t write every day, I lose confidence, and then I can’t write, because, like most creative people, I am quite mad. There is a voice in my head that dislikes my happiness and creative expression so much that it won’t stop shouting at me – I’m not good enough, my writing is poor, there are already so many books in the world and my words are being swallowed into the quicksand faster than I can write them, I haven’t got anything original to say, writing is stupid, I hate it, I’m a fraud, everyone is a writer now and there are no more readers left. Round and round it goes, but I have genuinely found that writing every day, religiously, is a great way of jumping in front of the brain pigs with a stop sign and holding them off. It sends out a message that I won’t be bullied. I will not down tools. I am in this for the long haul. Cease and desist.

A single day away from writing costs me dearly. The spell is broken, and I am no longer fully immersed. Rather than engaging with the characters, strolling the paths that they inhabit, thinking in their voices, laughing at their antics, breathing in the aroma of their laundry, I am all too quickly on the outside again, worried, questioning, lacking in confidence, ejected from a world that exists only in my imagination, but it doesn’t stop me getting barred from it.

The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

I’m lucky to work professionally as a ghostwriter, and working on other people’s life stories doesn’t present the same problem. It keeps my creative muscles flexed and gives me faith in my craft. You’d think that would be enough to quieten the voices, but I wonder if any level of success can ever really shave off the demented tentacles of the fragile creative ego. I doubt it.

And, of course, in these destabilising times, there is an additional benefit of writing every day. The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

The first book on my lockdown reading list is ‘Writing Well’ (Philips, Linington, Penman), a writing therapy manual of sorts, which is a boost to my creative writing teaching prep. The opening chapters break down just why writing is so beneficial for those with mental health issues (all of us!), specifically in a group context.

Writing provides an opportunity to externalise feelings

Promotes trust and a sense of community

Can prompt reminiscence

Can develop concentration and orientation in time

Can promote a sense of awareness of others and the environment

Helps to develop a sense of self-esteem

Is a means of developing writing skills

It encourages appreciation of other forms of writing.

I would add to this the paradox of it as a means of making sense of the world while, at the same time, escaping it, of exploring feelings at a safe distance, vacationing in the sub-conscious. It is taking control when the world has become too messy. And the times in my life when I have abandoned writing have been the most unhappy. It’s where the magic happens, pure and simple, and I will gladly, bravely, battle my gatekeepers on a daily basis, swinging my battle-ax and roaring into the wind, if it means I get to spend time there. On a good day, there’s nowhere I would rather be.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer …  @hayleystories

Reading ‘Writing Down the Bones’ Twenty Years Later

My God, I was an arrogant writer when I was younger. I knew my work was good, and I reacted to criticism the way flat-earthers respond to the inconvenient truth. I was hot stuff, they were wrong/moronic/picking on me, and the world would have to catch up with my genius sooner or later.

But I wasn’t arrogant enough not to learn my craft. I’ve always read compulsively, and can neck a tall book on the craft of writing in one sitting. I’ve always been devoted to being the best I could be, but that didn’t mean that I was realistic, and I wonder how far I ever really pushed myself into the uncomfortable space where the real magic happens. I loved books that taught me about character and plotting, finding inspiration, pacing, all the components of a good book, all the things I trusted to move me forward as a writer, all the safe spaces, but I was less sure about the ones that pushed me out of my comfort zone. One of which was the classic Writing the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest breaking out of quarantine and ramraiding a library. It will see you through. I promise.

It recently came back into my life when I was exploring approaches to teaching and writing more authentically, and as the Buddhists say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

It is a beautiful rumination on what it’s like to be a writer, to trust what’s inside you and tell your story honestly and vividly, to communicate in full colour, and spill something of your essence on the page.

True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

As a younger writer (and even as a not-so-younger writer) this wasn’t something that mattered to me as much as crafting a good story, entertaining and sometimes showing just how clever I was with nifty twists and turns that kept readers guessing. There is nothing wrong with any of that, per se, except I started to question why I was doing it. What’s the point in writing when there’s already so much book in the world? Why does any of this matter to me? Am I connected at all to anything I’ve ever written? Have I ever written a word of truth? I would turn up to my desk less and less when I couldn’t answer a single one of these questions.

Writing Down the Bones came back into my life at just the right time, and I will share with you the analogy that formed in my mind while I was reading it, as it encouraged me to spill my insides with daily free-writing sessions and let go, to tap into what was really inside of me. I realised that I had been approaching writing from the completely wrong angle.

A tree starts with a seed.

It doesn’t come into the world fully formed.

I had always brainstormed for ideas, found my tree and then worked on replicating it in book form in its fully finished state. I left room for just enough creativity to keep myself interested. I could colour the leaves as I went and sketch the intricate detail of the bark. A feral squirrel might occasionally jump out of it unannounced, but essentially, I knew what it looked like before I began, and I was never going to be too surprised by the outcome.

A seed.

That was what I needed.

A daily writing practice, not knowing what I was going to write and sitting back as the beautiful shoots emerged. Rejecting the idea of shape and form, of neatly packaged ideas, of creating something that fits neatly onto a bookshelf. Getting in touch with my authentic self to see what was there. Using my own obsessions, passions, preoccupations, loves, hates, hopes and dreams to create art, rather than writing with a market in mind that I might be able to capture if I crafted the right character, chose the perfect theme and tapped into an elusive zeitgeist.

As I write this, I realise that I am being too hard on my younger self. It was fear more than arrogance. Diving into the subconscious is terrifying, and the rewards aren’t guaranteed, which isn’t a great sell for a young writer hungry for success, fame and money, none of which matters to me anymore. I have let go of so many things that were once important. True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer …  @hayleystories

The Primal Act of Writing Longhand

I loved English at school, but I absolutely hated our Tuesday morning sessions. The teacher made strange ‘uuurp’ sounds after everything he said, smelt of Avon and was unpredictable in his response to ill behaviour, sometimes laughing along and other times practically throwing whole boys across the room. But it wasn’t his idiosyncrasies that I hated, rather his insistence that we should spend the hour filling pages and pages of an exercise book with row upon row of loops and swoops and squiggles and swirls in the name of improving our handwriting rather than reading how Billy Caspar was getting on with Kes or making up our own stories.

Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact.

He didn’t even let us write whole words, sometimes not even whole letters – just the underline flourish of an f or j tail or the overground whoop of p, d or b. I hated it, but I have to confess that I’m grateful now for those wasted hours. Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact, but I love mine, and other people like it too, and, for some reason, it means a lot to me. It’s unique to me, but it also, as graphologists will testify, speaks of my character, temperament and creativity.

Like most writers, I do most of my work on my laptop. I wouldn’t be able to deliver a longhand version of an article or manuscript to a publisher, so why would I make extra work for myself by adding a handwritten draft to the equation. You can’t spellcheck handwritten copy, and you can’t conveniently switch lines around, so what would be the point? However, the moment I decided to write my memoirs, the first thing I did was find a beautiful journal and pen. The lines had to be the right colour and distance from each other, the pages the right quality, stitched not spiral, a medium Bic that would glide rather than score. And then I began. The idea of typing didn’t occur to me, because that special nature of handwriting runs deeper than aesthetics and character markers; it offers a fluidity that frees the mind, a direct, unbroken link between the mind and the page, which, for me, taps into something deeper and more personal than typing. It is writing, but it is art at the same time.

And as a piece of art, there are secrets hidden within a handwritten memoir – the doodles on the page where the muse abandoned the author, the slow, apprehensive rigidity of difficult subject matter, the looping abandon of an author in the flow of genius, the scored lines of fury, the same word overwritten again and again as the writer processes just what it means to be this person, to tell these truths. It says so much about the author and the experience of writing, and we don’t often get to be this free in life. Writing truthfully is an act of rebellion. Writing longhand is revelling in the experience. In the absence of cave walls on which to tell our stories, it is the rawest way to express the written word.

It also makes it harder to self-edit. We can cross out words or whole paragraphs in our notebooks, but we know they’re there, and we know what they say. Perhaps they’re mistakes, but maybe they’re truths fighting for the light of day. Perhaps what lies under the scribbled biro is the story that you were always meant to tell.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories