Creative nonfiction: memoir vs. autobiography

In the comments of my recent post Writing Reading Retreat: Memoir, a reader asked about the difference between memoir and autobiography, noting that the lines often seem blurred. Thanks, Leah, for inspiring this post.

One of my favorite creative nonfiction writing instructors defined it this way: “A memoir is a slice of life.” A memoir can be about a specific time, event or theme, which is why one person can write multiple memoirs. It’s also why memoirists don’t have to be famous.

An example of one author with multiple memoirs is Mary Karr, who wrote The Liar’s Club (her childhood), Cherry (coming of age) and Lit (her battle with alcoholism). Although there is some overlap, the three books cover very distinct themes and events. Another example is Janice Erlbaum, who wrote the memoir Girlbomb about her time as a “halfway homeless” teen and then followed that up with Have You Found Her, a gripping story about a teen Erlbaum meets when she volunteers at the shelter she wrote about in her first memoir.

Although the recent glut of memoirs “written” by celebs doesn’t help with differentiating the two genres (or sub-genres), autobiographies are usually reserved for celebrities and high-profile politicians. An autobiography usually covers the person’s life, from birth to death or some stopping point between the two. In her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, Sue William Silverman devotes an appendix to the sub-genres of creative nonfiction, which she dubs “The Meandering River.”

Silverman defines autobiography as celebrity-oriented and “based on the subject’s ‘life of action,’ and thus told more historically then impressionistically.” She also adds, “the contract with the reader in the case of autobiography is that the historical facts, at least, are true” and that there’s little room for reflection. 

In terms of memoir, Silverman’s argues that the sub-genre is distinguished by two distinct voices: one to tell the events and one to reflect on them, revealing what the facts mean. (Off topic: if you are looking for resources on voice for memoir, pick up Silverman’s book Fearless Confessions. It’s been highly recommended to me by several writing teachers, including my recent writing coach.)

Perhaps the distinctions between memoir and autobiography are clear to you, but questions about them have surfaced in every memoir writing class I’ve taken. When the topic came up in comments here, I couldn’t resist indulging in the topic.

What about you? Are there other creative nonfiction genres or sub-genres that blur the lines? Do you differentiate memoirs in another way? How? Please share in the comments.

One thought on “Creative nonfiction: memoir vs. autobiography

  1. Here’s what troubles me. Is “Moll Flanders” a fake memoir or a fake autobiography? The book covers practically her whole life which is a trait of autobiographies. But it is a good read, driven by the protagonist’s desire to find satisfaction, and has a character arc, which are traits of memoirs. My opinion is that just as James Joyce foreshadowed the Coming of Age memoir, Daniel Dafoe foreshadowed the lifelong search for meaning memoir.
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

Comments are closed.