Many people confuse autobiography and memoir. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably; however, there are differences between them.
Although it is written from the author’s perspective, as in memoir, an autobiography usually spans a person’s whole life. Examples of autobiography include Ghandi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth and I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai.
Memoirs, written usually in first person and from the author’s perspective, focus on an event or pivotal period in their lives. It contains in some instances, more narrative, more storytelling features including thoughts and emotions. Most importantly, the author writes it using their memory of the event, usually toward a certain end or point.
The Glass Castle is a memoir; while it does not cover Jeanette Walls whole life, it focuses on a significant period of her youth and upbringing.
Memoir is more intimate. Consider Memoirs of a Geisha compared to Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: Whereas an autobiography contains more facts, dates, and times, memoir paints a picture, drawing the reader into an emotional narrative.
Memoir was thought to have been invented in 397 A.D. with St. Augustine. Although his book spanned his whole life, the portions therein where written in a memoir fashion with pivotal events filled with emotional detail and his own point of view.
Memoir has evolved over time.
As a child, I remember reading autobiographies. I would sit enraptured in the corner of the library, reading chapters from presidents, actresses, and others. The librarians would point me over to the easy readers, but I wanted to read something real, something intimate and beautiful. I found a lot of dry stories that included people’s names and dates and facts, but I still found it interesting. I tried to go for the more intimate portraits of life that the librarians definitely guided me away from.
Later, I would steal my mother’s True Story magazines. Far too mature for my young eyes but, apart from the sex scenes, the secrets and innermost thoughts and feelings of the author and the actions of his or her friends or partners captured my consideration.
Ron Terranova’s The Red Wing Chronicles deserve a shoutout for mixing the two genre’s. It’s an impassioned look at scenes from his life, spanning most of his life.
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