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:

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