For much of history, our fascination with other people’s lives and their unique stories or challenges has been one of the defining features of humanity. Reading memoirs and autobiographies is a window into the lived experiences of notable individuals and provides us with moments of laughter, sadness, empathy, and joy. But what exactly is the difference between memoir vs autobiography? While they may look the same on the surface and are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation, there are a few things that make them distinct.

What Is a Memoir?

Written from a first-person perspective, memoirs are typically based on a set theme or idea and focus narrowly on a particular time in the author’s life, rather than every moment up until the present day. They may mention details from different periods in their life, but the overall story will be centered on their chosen theme.

When we’re thinking about memoir vs. autobiography, the best way to remember the difference is that memoir comes from the French word mémoire, or memory. Everything within the narrative is based on the author’s reflections and recollections.

Examples of Memoirs

  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which details the author’s diagnosis of terminal cancer at the age of 36 and his quest to answer, “What makes life worth living?”
  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, which looks at the 18-month period that the author spent in a psychiatric hospital.
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is a reflection on the author’s travel experiences in the wake of her divorce.

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What Is an Autobiography?

Like memoirs, autobiographies are also written from a first-person perspective, but they’re usually much broader than the single or handful of topics covered in a memoir. They’re chronological, with the author detailing their life from before their earliest memories and spanning all the way up to the present day. 

As there’s so much detail in an autobiography, such as names, places, dates, and events, there’s a significant amount of research and fact-checking that needs to be conducted before the writing process can begin. A memoir, on the other hand, is more about personal reflections and feelings around a topic, which can’t be verified in the same way.

Examples of Autobiographies

  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, which outlines the comedian’s life, from his upbringing in apartheid South Africa to the launch of his entertainment career in the United States.
  • Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, which is a gripping narrative that details the life and inspirations of one of the world’s most notable detective novelists.
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, which recounts the journey of the activist and political leader from his childhood all the way through his imprisonment and eventual presidency. 

Exploring a Life Well-Lived

If you’re trying to choose between reading or writing a memoir vs. autobiography, think about what you’re most interested in first. 

Do you want to know or share every detail from childhood all the way up to today? Or are you more fascinated by a particular time period or topic? 

Once you know which suits you better, you have the direction you need to pick up your next read or start writing your very own memoir or autobiography.

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