Life Story Strategies: Understanding the Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography

(Each week, I will be responding, in depth, to questions I receive on my Memoir Writing Group on Facebook. The group is free, and we focus on the art and craft of writing our life stories.)

A few days ago, a new writer to our group, Billy, posed this query:

I have several ideas for memoirs I wanna write but not sure where to get started. I am a basketball coach and have been close to 30 years….This is one subject I do plan on writing but I am unsure if I should write about all of my experiences in one memoir or possibly write several. For example I started a travel team in 2013. I considered writing about just those experiences and [then write] other memoirs concerning other time periods from my coaching. Any advice from you veteran writers would be appreciated.

This is a great question, Billy, and it’s one that most individuals who want to share their story ask. How much do I include? What do I leave out? Why?

Writing your memoir is a lot different than writing your biography, which includes a more exhaustive story of your entire life. You — in a compilation of unrelated events — are more the theme than any other event or defining aspect of your life.

If we consider your biography to be an all-encompassing, chronological look at your life, a memoir is a magnifying glass into one particular aspect of your life where you want to focus on a theme, or showcase a particular aspect of who you are. Consider the four possible examples below.

  1. A musician might focus on the hardships of “making it” in the music industry, selecting the key events that helped her become an established singer/songwriter.
  2. A teacher might focus on the hardships in his life that helped him become a more selfless educator.
  3. An addict might focus on the events that led to addiction, the struggles to break the addiction, and the challenges faced every day in staying clean.
  4. A coach might focus on the road to the big state championship, which might include 3-5 experiences as a child/young adult that molded his or her unique and perhaps unconventional coaching style.

What all of these examples have in common is that the events are selected to contribute to a greater message, a greater theme, rather than serve as a nice, broad survey of what might be a very interesting life.

If I am a coach writing about the success of one particular group comprising castaways from other teams, I might include the story of when I, as a young player, was cut from three teams before an unconventional coach saw unrealized promise in my game. Because that coach believed in me, I was able to believe in the once-discarded players that took us to the championship game.

Every detail, every story shared contributes to the bigger theme of the memoir.

As a review to some, and new to others, Lee Gutkind and Philip Gerard, the gurus of Creative Nonfiction, have outlined the basic characteristics of the genre. You can see how memoir fits nicely here:

  • Has an apparent and deeper subject (it’s that deeper subject that the memoir focuses on);
  • Is timely and is also timeless;
  • Tells a good, entertaining story (has a strong beginning, middle, and end);
  • Is crafted with intent (the author is deliberate in how the story is written); and
  • Includes a reflection on behalf of the writer (written in first person).

The debate rages on whether it must all be true. Hardcore believers in the genre will tell you, affirmatively, Yes. Those who might fall a little left of the strict journalistic style of writing believe it is okay to “modify” the story in a way that contributes to the overall truth of the memoir. Those completely to the far left of the continuum will tell you that “part fact, part fiction” is perfectly acceptable to be called a memoir.

I guess you could say I’m a hardcore memoir writer with tendencies to glance a little to the left, now and then. More on that debate in another post, though!

When selecting the parts of your life to include in your memoir, the process can be a grueling one, as there are so many variables to consider. My recommendation is that you spend some time brainstorming everything that is seemingly related. Keep a running list in your personal journal (it’s for your eyes only, so no worries about being judged about what’s on your list!), and begin to narrow the field of choices when you figure out what you want your memoir to focus on.

Ask yourself:

  • What changes in me do I want the reader to see clearly?
  • What are the events that led up to those changes?
  • What events created tension in my life that are dramatic and suspenseful for my reader?
  • What events might my reader relate to most clearly?

As you can see in the questions above, you are writing for yourself, but you are writing for an audience as well. Consider both as you select the events that really represent your life story and your memoir’s focus.

Writing your memoir is a very personal endeavor. Write for yourself first; you always get to choose what you share — and when — with your audience.

Here’s to you and your story. May the words flow freely today.

Rus VW

Coming Soon: Your Story Matters: An Essential Guide to Writing Memoir, a new eBook for writers of all levels, filled with the fundamentals of memoir, suggested strategies, and takeaway prompts to help you share your life story.

Understanding and Embracing the Power of Revision

Many years ago, Sharon Miller, National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant and nationally recognized author and educator in the teaching of writing, asked me to offer my thoughts on the power of revision in the genre of creative nonfiction and how, when we write with intent in the revision process and understand who our audience is, we can produce high-quality writing products that are both effective and accessible to our readers.

Recently, Sharon revisited my theories on revision and applied them to fiction writing. I am happy to say that, in her analysis, they still stand. You can read her complete discussion HERE.

I am humbled by Sharon’s discussion of my writing theories (especially regarding revision and the reader-writer connection) in both genres of creative nonfiction and fiction.  Since she published my original assertions nearly 15 years ago, I have refined my theories on revision, with a focus on the writer’s intent once the decision is made to take a piece of writing to publication.

As shown in the updated graphic below, the writer “revises with intent,” keeping the intended audience in mind to ensure the reader’s accessibility to the content. But to best understand the role revision plays in writing, the writer also needs to understand what happens before the stage of revision even begins.

revision-graph-2014In the early stages of drafting, the writer must provide herself with the opportunity to write uninhibitedly, to play with ideas and explore without judgment or even consideration of the potential audience.  It is here that she allows her Voice, through her raw thoughts and ideas, to resonate as only she can do.

In this early drafting stage, the entire focus should be to understand exactly what the writer wants to say, and why.

The “how” all of this is done is the focus in the revision stage. This is the point when the writer understands — and agrees upon — the establishment of a working relationship with the reader. It is here that the journey begins to “let go” of a reasonable amount of the raw writing while still maintaining the essence of her voice in a polished work that keeps the writing, the message, and the connection with the reader authentic.

Writers of academic and creative writing often procrastinate and wait until the final hours of their deadline to create a piece of writing that they deem suitable to submit so they  can say proudly, “I made my deadline,” as if that were the only goal. Editors (and professors) in both genres are increasingly frustrated that writers often misunderstand the more important aspect of the deadline: to present a polished product that is authentic and that deeply connects with the intended reader. This aspect of writing is often sacrificed because of this misunderstanding.

Writers of academic papers, creative nonfiction, and fiction all need to embrace the importance of this stage of revision and understand the oft-ugly and unrewarding ownership that falls on them to manage. Revision is the darkest part of the writer’s journey, but it is the only path that leads to polished writing that is accessible to the reader long after the writer has moved on to other works.

JUST ANNOUNCED: ONLINE MEMOIR WRITING GROUP FORMED.

I have been interested in memoir writing all my life. I wrote my earliest pieces in sixth grade, thanks to a tremendous teacher, Jack Delaney, who introduced his students to the world of writing true stories about the experiences we had in our young, young lives.

I graduated from Goucher College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction, and one of the tracks available to us was memoir writing. Working with writers like Philip Gerard, Lisa Knopp, and Leslie Rubenstein transformed my writing in ways I never imagined possible. More important, though, is the urgency of memoir writing that they instilled in me. We all have stories to tell, traces of our existence experienced exclusively by us. To let those stories go untold loosens the fabric of our generation’s history, our experiences, our lives.

When the larger fabric of our country’s — and our world’s — history is missing the too-many threads of stories untold, we begin to get a tattered picture of what this life is like for all of us. The documentation becomes unbalanced; we look back on generations past and wonder, was it really this one-sided?

We have a need, a responsibility, to tell our true stories, but with that responsibility comes fear, sometimes anxiety — perhaps even dread. What will others think about the things I have experienced? How can I write about the stories that have changed my life when I know I will hurt the ones who once hurt me? What if I put all of this energy and courage into these stories, and then no one reads them?

All good questions that demand even better answers.

If you are interested in writing memoir, and would like to join our closed group of individuals who are exploring the sub-genre and sharing relevant information about writing tips, strategies, reviews, conferences, and publication opportunities, come on over and join us. You can find us on Facebook at

https://www.facebook.com/groups/338136912921598/

We hope you will join us. Together, we can tighten the fabric of this life we are living, and share with generations yet born what mattered most to us in our lifetimes, and why.