What’s the Difference? Memoir & Autobiography

You’re considering writing about your life—congratulations! While exciting, it also takes courage to do so, and describing what you want to do can be intimidating. You may also be wondering if what you’re aspiring to write is a memoir or an autobiography. While there are some similarities between these two subtypes of the nonfiction genre, there are also some important differences, which we’ll break down for you.

For starters, a memoir is considered a written work about a specific portion of the author’s life, whereas an autobiography is about their entire life. While some people hold the opinion that a memoir should only be about a couple of years of the author’s life, the definition we at Josha most commonly work with is that it’s a season of the author’s life—the exact amount of time covered is irrelevant.

For example, resilient by Katherine Turner covers the first twenty-one years of her life. It begins with a chapter that explains what her family’s life was like before she was born, then follows her from her earliest memories in childhood to when she was placed in foster care at eight years old, through high school, and slightly beyond her first year of college. The theme of her book is resilience—or, more specifically, the generational cycles of trauma she was born into and spent years repeating before making the courageous decision to try to break those cycles. The book ends with Katherine reaching out for help, and she’s shared that her next memoir will begin shortly thereafter, detailing how she worked to break those cycles, including her struggle with addiction. Because resilient covers approximately two decades, some might call it an autobiography. However, by the most technical definitions, resilient does, in fact, focus on a specific portion of the author’s life…if a bit longer a portion than the common example may be.

Other notable memoir examples include:

  • Beads: A Memoir of Falling Apart and Putting Yourself Back Together Again by Rachael Brooks, which details when she was raped and the initial portion of her healing journey;
  • What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton, which details her 2016 presidential campaign experience; and
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, which is the author’s story of growing up in poverty in Appalachia

If a memoir is a story from the author’s life, an autobiography is the author’s life story. Of course, if the author is writing it, it won’t be their complete life’s story—that’s what a biographer would produce after the author’s death—but it will be their life’s story up to the point at which they started writing that tome. While it may follow a particular thread of the author’s life, a technical autobiography will encompass the author’s entire life, starting from their earliest memories.

Some examples of autobiographies are:

  • When We Rise by Cleve Jones, in which the author tells his life story from recognizing as a teenager that he is gay and realizing he’s not alone as well as his work in the equal rights and Pride movement;
  • Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, in which he describes the battle for black liberation in South Africa; and
  • An Autobiography: My Life and My Experiences with the Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi, which covers his experiences with English colonialism and his quest to spread his philosophy.

If, however, you’re unsure which you want to write or how to get started, we have a few thought-prompting questions that may help you hone your vision.

  • What about your life do you want to share with others? Simply put, what’s your story?
  • When did you first consider writing your story? What drives you to want to share it with a broader audience?
  • If who you are now could send a message to yourself years ago, what would you say?
  • What is the message you want readers to carry with them after reading your story?

Knowing your intended genre before you start writing can be helpful, especially if you want to read other books in the same genre as you write, something we recommend as it can help you decide how you may want to describe certain events or structure your overall manuscript. However, it isn’t necessary. You can always adjust and shape and edit later once you’ve gotten words down on the page. It’s important to remain flexible as your intent may shift as you’re writing, too. You can always refine to be more suitable for one genre over another after you’ve taken that first step of writing your first draft. What matters most is that you start writing.  

Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about booksstories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.

What’s the Difference? Part 1:
Memoir & Autobiography