Telling Your Story: Memoir vs Autobiography vs Biography
Memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies are three ways to tell a non-fiction story (generally) about a specific person. The key word here is non-fiction. Everything in these pieces must be true and accurate to the best of the author’s abilities. This means if you are writing about someone else, you cannot say what they were thinking or feeling definitively because you can’t know that. You can, of course, interview them and ask; however readers may not believe you. Readers like memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies because they focus on a single person’s real, non-fiction life.
Author Is Not the Subject
If you are telling another person’s life story, then you are writing a biography. For the purpose of this blog post, the term “biography” does not refer to the “about the author” section found in books, programs, and other informational packets. Out of the three styles of recounting the story of a specific person, this is the one that requires the most research. As the biographer, you are expected to know everything about the person you are writing about, and you are responsible for vetting your sources. Readers expect you to deliver the true life story of a person and wade through all of the rumors and myths so they don’t have to do this work themselves.
Third Person Point of View
Because a biography is about someone other than the author, a distant third person point of view is used. The author can speculate what their subject may have been thinking and feeling or use journals and letters as guides, but they still won’t be able to fully delve into their subject’s internal life like a fiction author might do in a close third person point of view. This creates a distance between the reader and the subject of the story, so readers often aren’t interested in a biography unless they are already interested in the person being written about. Biographies that do well tend to be about famous people.
Examples of biographies include Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney, Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsebet Bathory by Kimberly L. Craft, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and John Adams by David McCullough. Notice how all of these books are by someone other than the author. Just because a book has biography, autobiography, or memoir in the title does not mean it is actually a biography, autobiography, or memoir.
Author Shares a Chapter of Their Life
A memoir is a person recounting a portion of their life. They are not covering their whole life from birth to present; instead they share a specific event, experience, or chapter. Memoirs should be in first person point of view because the author is telling their story. Using another point of view distances the reader and inspires feelings of distrust. If the author doesn’t own their story and take responsibility for it with “I” pronouns, readers believe the author is lying or leaving out key information. First person also allows the author’s voice to shine, so readers feel like the author is sitting across from them and sharing their story. Linda Kinnamon does this well on the first page of Alchemy of the Afterlife when:
One eye fluttered, opening only enough to allow a view of my own eyelashes. Slowly, like doors rusted on their hinges, I opened both eyes, ready to slam them shut if anything or anyone was looking back. This peebkaboo technique has always served me well when watching horror movies. I’ve just never needed it first thing in the morning, in my own bedroom (1).
In a memoir, you, the author, are the protagonist/main character, so your voice should come through. Kinnamon’s Southern twang shows up in her word choice, euphemisms, and sentence organization, and her thoughts and feelings align with her personality and the situations she found herself in.
Themes, Messages, and Moments
Unless the subject of the book is famous, memoir is the most popular of the three non-fiction writing styles being discussed because it cuts out all of the boring parts and zeros in on a particular message, moment, emotion, theme, etc. For example Christopher McDougall focuses on the lessons he learned about happiness, the limits of the human body, and freedom while studying extreme long distance runners in Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. McDougall begins with why he was inspired to study long distance running and ends with his participation in an ultra-marathon. A memoir is often striving to convey a truth, not just the author’s story, so it emphases the part of the author’s life that demonstrates or leads up to their realization of that truth. McDougall’s truth is the happiness running can bring and how much more the human body is capable of than people realize.
The back cover of memoirs both give a bit of background about the person writing the memoir and why they chose to focus on that part of their life, aka the theme. Linda Kinnamon states on the back of her book Alchemy of the Afterlife she will center on her time as a hospice nurse with a few brief flashbacks to her childhood as an orphan and life after death from a nurse’s perspective. Memoirs Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall and The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson also convey these key aspects on their stories on their covers.
Author Discusses Their Whole Life
Like the standard biography, an autobiography covers a person’s whole life – up until the present. However, like a memoir, it is a first person account of the author’s life, but there is not usually a theme or message.
The first part of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an autobiography, not a memoir. Most of the book focuses on how King became a writer, but some parts stray. He begins with his early childhood through passages like:
Our stay in West De Perte was neither long nor successful. We were evicted from our third-floor apartment when a neighbor spotted my six-year-old brother crawling around on the roof and called the police (22).
King includes moments other than those directly involved in his path to becoming a writer; therefore part one of On Writing is an autobiography. Because King is still living and writing, the autobiography does not span his whole life, but an autobiography cannot really cover a person’s whole life. There is always more after the book is written (unless the author immediately dies upon writing the last word).
Unlike Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, most autobiographies are standalone books, not a section. Examples of these are Night by Elie Wiesel, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
An Editors Thoughts on Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Biographies
If you are hoping to traditionally publish or have success as an indie author, I highly recommend taking a critical look at your life story. Is the whole thing honestly interesting? If you didn’t live it, would you want to read it? More often than not, memoir is the way to go because your whole life doesn’t need to be recounted in order to get your point across. A chapter in your life is where the meat of the story is. Also, memoir is hot right now. Readers and publishers often search specifically for memoir, not autobiography or biography unless you are famous. This is because memoir tends to read like fiction – it has conflict, story and character arcs, tension, and mystery that keep readers invested. As always there are exceptions, but these are rare.
Like other categories in writing, writers must understand the differences between memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, so they use the appropriate terms when cataloguing their books. Readers do not like to be tricked. If they pick up a book you claim is a memoir of your time interning for Beyoncé and you start with “I was born in a small town in New Mexico . . .” your readers will not be happy and will not give you a good review. Don’t let this stop you from diving into non-fiction. Instead do your research, and use the benefits of memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies to Ignite Your Ink.
What differences have you found when comparing biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs? Post them in the comments below and subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for a free chart comparing first and third person points of view.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.