People often confuse memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, and there’s a good reason for that—they can be quite similar. So don’t feel bad if you mix up these terms: You’re not alone. Since I often get asked what the difference is among these genres, I thought I’d whip up a l’il blog post to chat through it with you.
To put it simply, a memoir is a story about a particular period of a person’s time. That’s not to say that memoir necessarily shares a short sequence of a person’s life—memoirs can detail years and decades of a person’s life, but they also can detail a few days.
a memoir is a story about a particular period of a person’s time
A book that chronicles a person’s survival journey when they’re lost in a forest for two weeks could be a memoir.
A book that describes a person’s lifelong journey with anxiety could also be a memoir.
A book that follows a labour and delivery nurse’s career could be a memoir.
A memoir focuses on a certain aspect of a person’s life. It is not a life story and doesn’t include every other detail pertaining to that person’s life. Some elements may be included if they’re relevant, but other information about that person’s education, family, food preferences, relationships, etc., might not be…unless there is a direct link to their focus.
So, that book about being lost in the woods for two weeks is unlikely to dive into the person’s romantic history—unless there is a tie-in to the current situation/headspace.
The book about someone’s anxiety might not go into the person’s educational background…unless there is a tie-in to mental health.
And that labour and delivery nurse story isn’t likely going to tackle their childhood experience of being bullied at school…unless that experience led to their career choice.
A book that chronicles a person’s entire life journey in vast detail can be a biography (written by someone else) or an autobiography (authored by the subject themselves). These are usually about well-known and influential people, but that isn’t always the case.
A book that tells the story of a passenger on board one of the fateful planes that crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, based on text messages sent home and interviews with friends and family is creative non-fiction. It cannot be a memoir or autobiography as the subject is no longer alive and the book is being written by someone else. Since there are no living witnesses to that fateful event, details will have to be guessed, which makes it creative non-fiction and not a biography.
A memoir is written by a person whose experience is their own about a specific period of time or a specific element (theme) of their life
An autobiography is written by a person that chronicles their full life
A biography is written by someone else about another person’s life story