Memoir versus autobiography

One of the world’s longest autobiographies is a set of 26 novels. Kalle Päätalo started his Iijoki books in the 1970s and kept going until the 90s. His giant oeuvre covers his life in minute detail from his childhood in Finland, up until he becomes a writer. You can also write an autobiography that long. But you don’t have to: write a memoir instead.

I teach memoir writing and I always start by asking participants if they know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Many of them don’t. Often, they think a memoir is an autobiography. No, it’s not. A memoir is a story from your life, one story. An autobiography is your whole life – birth to now. You can write countless memoirs. You can write only one autobiography — unless you’re Justin Bieber. He “wrote” his first autobiography, First Step 2 Forever: My Story, when he was 16 years old and has since gone on to write another one.

Another difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that autobiographies are also often told chronologically: from birth, to childhood, to adulthood and all the milestones in between. As well, specific dates, names, places and events are included and facts are double-checked. Autobiographies can also cross boundaries from literature into historical texts.  

Some people think writing a memoir means including all of the above and when they look at the task of compiling all this information, it’s overwhelming. That means their poignant anecdotes and funny tales, as well as all of their good, and bad, adventures never make it onto a page. That’s a shame, because they could be writing about their lives one story at a time instead of all at once.

Start harnessing your memories into memoirs – one story at a time.