KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE between memoir and autobiography is essential to writing successfully in either genre, and yet it is probably the single most misunderstood aspect of both. So let’s get this straight once and for all.
You are not writing autobiography when you write memoir, and while whole academic conferences can be spent howling over the semantic differences of the two, I define memoir as writing from one aspect of your life at a time and autobiography as writing your life story. I find that for all my online memoir classes, as well as for my private memoir coaching clients, this definition instantly and forever liberates the writers from both writing forever without ever finishing a project and from producing essays or books that no one wants to read. Sounds good, right?
Memoir vs. Autobiography: Knowing the Difference Liberates You
The first and best reason to learn the difference between memoir and autobiography is so that you can have a writing life and not just write one big book for years and years and never finish.
Uh oh. Are you looking at your shoes? Looking out the window? Did I just tap into something? I bet I did, since every single day in my memoir coaching practice, I speak to people who believe that every single day of their lives extends the length of the book they are currently writing. It does not. Not if you want anyone to read it.
While writing in real time – chronicling a mother’s illness, a child’s development, the decline and death of a spouse – may require some writing during an experience, the length of that experience does not determine the length of your book, at least not if you are writing memoir, a genre which is not about you, but rather is about something universal in which you are illustration.
By contrast, autobiography is about you, but is not a genre for those of us whose work or life story is not already known, and if knowing the difference between memoir and autobiography is the greatest liberation you can experience, writing an essay or book that no one wants to read is the greatest threat of not taking the difference to heart.
How to Write What Someone Wants to Read
Let’s get you to write what others want to read, and move you away from writing in a way that merely relates what you did in your life.
Well, look at that last sentence two graphs up. Reading merely what someone did in his or her life pales in comparison to reading what he or she did with it. Think of the first as reading someone else’s datebook and you’ll quickly understand what I mean. While reading some celebrity’s datebook might be fun – knowing who came to lunch, who was a lover, the screen test dates required – reading over mine will be a snore, I promise. Why? Because you know what role the celebrity plays in your life. But what if you have no context for that person? What if that person is not known to you in some public way that provides a way in which to view the life? Well, that’s when things get snoringly boring.
The tricky part here is that I will never be bored reading my own datebook. You will never get bored reading yours. Going over again and again the things we’ve done, the places I’ve been, the appointments you’ve kept can delight us. But knowing that no one else should be subjected to this download of our day-to-days is something you and I need to embrace so that we can write good stories.
What Makes a Good Story?
Much like those long stories at the Thanksgiving table that Uncle Henry tells each year, stories based solely on the day-to-day of what we do usually contain a lot of what I refer to as, “And then I saids.” This means that the person telling the tale believes that direct quotes and blow-by-blow recounts and back-ups and restarts – “Oh, wait. No. It wasn’t my red dress I was wearing. It was my blue dress. You don’t know my blue dress? Oh, that’s another great story. Let me tell that first and then I’ll get back to the other one” – are enough to keep your interest. Think about this. When did you really enjoy being told such a story when it wasn’t by your own small child? Even then, you might have found yourself doing your shopping list in your head while feigning interest.
In these cases, the person telling the story believes that because something happened to her it’s interesting to others. Moment of truth here, readers. Is it? You know it’s not.
Tell Stories People Can Relate To
When people tell stories that engage us, notice how others listen. Perhaps they laugh or cry along. Maybe they seem entertained and happy to listen. Why? Because they can relate. That does not require that they did what the storyteller did, believe what he or she believe, or practice what that person practices. What it means is that something universal was touched on in the tale – adventure, patriotism, sin, the wages of sin; the idea of how grief can pervade a life until one day it doesn’t; the lessons of how to live well with a dog, or any other of countless universal themes.
We can debate all day over what makes a good story, as well as what makes a good storyteller, but at its simplest it has to do with whether or not we can relate in some way. Someone to whom we can relate – even if their experiences take us to places far afield of our own territory, or into situations with which we have no direct experience – brings us in via the universal, and not merely personal, aspects of their tale.
The Golden Rule of Memoir
So here is the golden rule of memoir: Memoir is not about what you did. Memoir is about what you did with it. With that in mind, you will write good memoir, and not merely mediocre autobiography. Merely write what you did and we’ll have autobiography. Write what you did with it and you’ll have a writing life, producing work that others can read.
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Hope to see you there.
Photo credit: Florian-Klauer