STATUS: I’m going to be bald by the end of this week because S&S makes me want to pull my hair out. I’m ready to channel my inner Miss Snark…
What’s playing on the iPod right now? RAPTURE by Blondie
In other words, what is the difference between writing a memoir versus writing an autobiography (and there’s a huge difference, trust me).
When I’m at a conference, it makes me cringe when writers announce that they are writing their memoirs. Why? Because that means they are writing their life story (including “I was born in 1940 (or choose a year) in Biloxi, Mississippi–or choose wherever”) which is an autobiography not a memoir.
In publishing, famous people have biographies written about them or they may write their own autobiography (Personal History by Katharine Graham comes to mind) but the keyword here is “famous.”
For publication purposes, if you aren’t famous, there is no market for your “memoirs” and a large publishing house will not buy it. Now that doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t write his or her memoirs (what a powerful way to document the family history etc.) but don’t imagine that it’s going to be appropriate for publication to a wider audience.
Once again, I’m not trying to be harsh or mean. I’m simply trying to clarify the difference because it’s obvious in the query letters that we receive that a good majority of people don’t understand that there is one.
An autobiography is a chronicle of a person’s life history.
A memoir is a story (with a story arc not unlike what occurs in a novel) told through a prism of one particular life experience and it usually focuses on a finite period of time and not the person’s life as a whole. A memoir has crafted scenes that build on one another to reach a pivotal moment. An autobiography has remembrances of important events throughout the author’s life and how it unfolded from that person’s unique, inside perspective. They can be separate from each other and don’t need to build to a climatic moment.
Big difference. And here are some suggestions for those interested in writing a memoir. Read the top ones out there. Study how they are crafted. What makes them powerful? What stories did they tell that captured national and international attention? How are scenes created? What is the climatic moment? But most of all, pay attention to the author’s distinctive voice. By doing so, you’ll see what made the most successful memoirs popular and publishable.