What Is the Difference between a Memoir and an Autobiography?
Here at LifeTime Memoirs, we’ve been turning life stories into bespoke memoirs and autobiographies for over a decade. Often, one of the first questions that our clients – whom we call “authors” – will ask is: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Both are genres of non-fiction which tend to use a first-person writing style, and the two terms are frequently used synonymously, but there is a key difference between them.
An autobiography is perhaps simpler than a memoir – it’s a first-hand account of someone’s life, from start to finish. Typically, its author will start with their birth, although they may wish to begin with family history and describe the lives of their ancestors. An autobiography will usually progress through its author’s life in a chronological fashion, but some authors will prefer to structure their books thematically, including one chapter on sporting exploits, another on travel, and another dedicated to their spouse. At LifeTime Memoirs, we give our authors complete control over the structure of their book, so our publications are sometimes thematic and sometimes chronological. Either way, an autobiography captures the full scope of an author’s life, from birth to the present day.
Here are some examples of popular (and unpopular!) autobiographies which have been published in recent decades:
- A Promised Land – Barack Obama
- Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
- Spare – Prince Harry
- I Am Ozzy – Ozzy Osborne
- Cash: The Autobiography – Johnny Cash
Most LifeTime Memoirs are autobiographies, as our authors want to share their full life story with their children, grandchildren, and friends. Given that an author’s family and friends are usually more familiar with them in the present day, the chapters on childhood and family history are often the most illuminating … and surprising! It’s very common for the recipients of a LifeTime Memoir to learn something entirely new about their loved one; it’s also common that they gape in awe at how their grandfather looked as a young man!
However, what if our authors would rather focus on one particular part of their life? What if they would prefer to keep their family life private, or they don’t feel as if the world needs to know that their favorite pastimes are knitting and tiddlywinks? This is where memoirs come into play.
Whereas an autobiography tells a full life story, a memoir focuses on one specific aspect of its author’s story. You’ve probably heard the phrase “political memoirs” before – a political memoir tends to focus solely, or at least predominantly, on its author’s time in politics, leaving their childhood, family life, and hobbies aside. Of course, there are many other forms of memoir besides politics: a basketball player might prefer to focus only on his sporting life, a traveler might want to share her adventures, or someone with a certain medical condition might wish to analyse their life through this lens. In all of these scenarios, a memoir focuses on a significant part of its author’s life.
There are several further differences between memoirs and autobiographies, although they are by no means ironclad rules. Memoirs are slightly more likely to jump back and forward in time, as opposed to following a strict chronological narrative. While a memoir might place greater emphasis on the author’s emotional experiences, with a more introspective tone, an autobiography has a greater concern about factual events and on contextualizing its narrative in history.
These are a few examples of published memoirs:
- War Doctor – David Nott
- Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
- The Downing Street Years – Margaret Thatcher
- Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing – Matthew Perry
The secret behind all these examples, of course, is that they probably weren’t written solely by the named author in question. Many celebrity autobiographies and memoirs are written in tandem with a ghostwriter. They might not get their name in print, but a ghostwriter will often write a significant amount of the text, make amendments based on feedback from the author, and receive a chunk of the eventual profits once the book is published. The ghostwriter relishes the opportunity to tell a fascinating story, while the author is able to publish a book that they might not have had the time or the chance to write otherwise.
LifeTime Memoirs aims to bring this experience to anyone who wants to tell their story. In my two and a half years as a LifeTime Memoirs editor, I have read countless autobiographies and memoirs, each one packed with unique stories, each one a priceless gift for its author’s friends and family. All our authors have their own dedicated team consisting of a ghostwriter, editor, interviewer, project manager, and typesetter. The LifeTime Memoirs team is here to help you at every stage of your memoir project.
If you’re interested in transforming your life story into a wonderful bespoke memoir, I would highly recommend getting in touch with us. Whether you’re ready to commission a project or you just have a few questions, call us now or use the form below to schedule a call. And don’t let the LifeTime Memoirs name fool you – we write autobiographies too!
Written by Ben Creeth, LifeTime Memoirs editor
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