Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Writing A Memoir Is Not The Same As Writing “My Memoirs”

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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.


12 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    When I was in the middle of classes for my degree in literature, I took a class on biography, autobiography, and memoirs. It was interesting, and you’ve nailed it on the head here. That said, I didn’t care for many of the memoirs except Maya Angelou, and a book that was a mix of biography and memoir called “The Silent Woman,” I believe about Sylvia Plath. Now that was interesting.

    It was a memoir about the process of writing a biography of Sylvia Plath. Very very interesting how the two stories mixed. On one hand, you had the story of a troubled poet, but then the memoir aspect of the book facinated me about how the biographer had so much trouble finding what she considered to be the truth of a woman’s life that had been so carefully, but cryptically documented through her personal writings. I should read that book again.

    Anyway, on a personal note, you won’t see a memoir from me. My life is boring. I accept that my life is boring, and I hope it remains boring because I am happy with my utterly boring blissfully happy life. LOL I don’t need the drama that it would take to make a memoir interesting.

    Chessie Welker

  2. Anonymous said:

    Although I have no intention of ever writing a memoir or autobiography, I know someone who did theirs and then self-published POD. It actually was a pretty interesting story (he was photographed for the cover of LIFE magazine as a young man), and it was wonderful for his family when he passed away that they had that to remember him by.

    Question: For those people who have written their memoir or autobiography, would it hurt their future writing opportunities to go the POD route?

  3. ORION said:

    One of my favorite memoirs is Running with Scissors and the runner up will be Look Me In The Eye. I think they are great examples of what Kristin is talking about.

  4. Reid said:

    If I every decide to write my memoirs, I’ll probably just make them up. Oprah likes them better that way.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Okay, one slight (and somewhat specific) clarification request:

    My late father was a librarian and book collector of some renown, although he’s hardly a household name. Over his lifetime, he donated a special collection of rare books, mostly dealing with impressionist and beatnik literature and the history of the small press numbering some six thousand pieces to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

    He had occasionally made notes about this history of his collection (both the donation to the university, and the private collection of some ten thousand book, about half of which we still own today after culling out the ones the rest of the family wasn’t interested in during a move). There is also some information he never wrote down — for example, he was on the famous\infamous (at least, in some circles) Phoenix Bookshop’s Christmas list, where the owner would send small free booklets of poetry out to certain special customers (the price of which today run for $75-300 retail), so it’s apparent he was one of their ‘special customers.’

    I was once talking with the Special Collections librarian at the University of Virginia about writing something to include with the collection that would be a sort of history of it, and my father’s role in it. He said that he would probably be interested, and that the University might even be willing to ‘officially’ publish it and make a limited print run of the booklet, depending on how it read.

    Now, the librarian doesn’t care what I call it, and it might be that — in the end — there’s just not enough information out there for such a project to succeed. But if I do manage to get the University to publish it, and I decide to list it as a publishing credit for some reason, how would I describe it? As a memoir, a biography, an autobiography (as it’s ‘based on his own notes’), or something else entirely?

  6. therese said:

    This is awesome information – I love that I was directed to this week of memoir blogs right now, while I am gearing up to promote my memoir.

    I am not an avid reader of memoirs though I am a professional writer. It wasn’t easy to shift from writing fiction to non-fiction. However I knew memoir is a very specific style prior to crafting the stories and compiling them to build on each other.

    Since I am non-famous and did not write a biography, I really appreciate all this information about what a memoir is and what it is not. It’s good to know I created a memoir and no one would ever confuse it with a novel.

    Thanks for this focus!

  7. Becky Levine said:

    Kristin,

    I’m really enjoying this series of blogs on memoirs–also some of my favorite books to read. As an editor, I have some clients working on their memoir & I try to give them examples of good published ones to read. Would you have a few titles to throw at us as your favorites?

    Thanks!

    Becky Levine

  8. awannabe said:

    I’m blogging my autobiography as a healing process. I’m not very old, but have worked through a lot. Its a wonderful thing.

  9. EGYPT said:

    Recording your life’s story through journaling, I believe can be converted into a memoir rather famous or a boring no body. You might be famous in your family. Write your memoirs based on the fame of your great grand parents, aunts, uncles and other relatives. The family foundation is the strength of building sound and stable minds. Most famous people you will never meet, but you will meet those in your family bloodline. Who can rob you of the conversations spoken at the setting of a fine dinner table with family. That is worth writing a memoirs. Who cares if a large publishing company will not buy it. They don’t know your story, nor your family. Everything is not about the greed of a dollar. Some memoirs are written to pass down to generations, not to be sold. They are great for family reunions small and large. Family unity is more important than greed.

  10. forgettingsally said:

    I think memoirs do not always have to be boring and centered simply on the author trying to make a point or statement; these days memoirs are crafted very much like a novelist read where the author sets the scenes and creates the right textual content that add color and character to the read.

    I am not famous or the like but I feel there’s a lot to share with memoir bits from each and everyone of us. The point is finding the story that resonates with the audience and the telling that delivers the content in words that express, and livens up every aspect of the read.

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this intriguing subject matter.

  11. Anonymous said:

    How are they the same? For example, how are autobiographies the same as memoirs and how are memoirs the same as biographies? I am doing a Venn Diagram on autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. Thanks for your help.

  12. Anonymous said:

    “Oh I have been editing my memoir(s) for the past fifty years and I am on my four hundred and twenty third edit, I anticipate it should be about ready for the kids to use as kindle for my funeral pyre within the next ten years or so, because it will still be incomplete by the time I check out… a pity no one will get the opportunity to read it, but hey I have met a lot of people who have given me lots of good advice over the years… spending at least twenty two of those years (when totalled) attending workshops, seminars and any other forum that helped me not to write my book, memoir…or is it an auto wots-it…oh well at least I know how to write… I should get plenty of advice up in heaven… come to think of it the best forum to be in to write an eternal book I suppose…shall I write a few words now? I think I’ll leave till the morning”

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