What is a Memoir? What Makes a Memoir Different from an Autobiography or Biography?

A literary agent discusses the contents of a quality memoir and how it differs from an autobiography or biography.

Memoirs are perennially popular with many new books coming out each year. The bestseller, Night, by Elie Wiesel, is a memoir, not an autobiography or biography. But what is a memoir, anyway?

Memoir, autobiography, biography

A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing. The text is about the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the author.

In contrast, an autobiography covers the author’s entire life to the present, and is expected to include details about his or her public and private life. A biography is someone’s life story written by another person.

Examples of memoirs

Elie Wiesel’s Night relates true stories of fellow concentration camp sufferers during the Holocaust of WWII based on the author’s shared experiences with them. He limits our glimpses of his own ordeals, including them reluctantly as a vehicle to chronicle the others’ suffering, perhaps due to survivor’s guilt.

Irene Spencer’s Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamists’s Wife is about polygamy from the author’s personal experience of it. Now in a monogamous marriage, which was beyond the topic of this memoir, Spencer did not give us the details of her life outside of polygamy.

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is the author’s memoir recounting the terrible events in twentieth century China by telling us how she, her mother, and her grandmother survived them. It does not include anything about Chang’s life since 1978, when she moved to England.

To sample many memoirs in one book:

Eve Claxton’s The World’s Best Memoir Writing: The Literature of Life from St. Augustine to Nelson Mandela is an anthology of memoir excerpts from people who have changed the world.

Memoir: Fact or fiction?

Obviously, a memoir should be true. The author should not alter the truth in telling his or her story. In fact, Elie Wiesel checked the text and made minor corrections in his book, Night, before it was published in the US to make it as truthful as possible.

Memories are faulty, so a little leeway is given to authors of memoirs, but they are expected to be honest and to check their facts for accuracy. Creating fiction and passing it off as nonfiction, as apparently was done by James Frey in his controversial A Million Little Pieces, is completely unacceptable.

Memoir writing techniques

A memoir is written in first person from the author’s point of view.

It is narrative nonfiction written in story form like fiction. Dialogue can be included, but since few people can remember precisely every word spoken, the dialogue is not literally true; instead the author attempts to recreate it as accurately as possible. For this reason, some memoirs, like Wild Swans, tell the story without dialogue.

The memoir author should “think small” and make a series of “reducing decisions,” says William Zinsser, author of the perennially popular book, On Writing Well, which includes a new chapter about writing memoirs in the latest edition.

Each memoir has a particular theme or focus

A memoir does not contain everything from this particular slice of the author’s life, but rather, events are selected and examined for meaning relative to the purpose of the book.

The author has questioned what happened and come to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way he sees the world.

And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.

Copyright 2006-2007 by Barbara Doyen. All rights reserved.

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