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How do I go about writing a memoir?
As an editor, I often get asked, “What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?”
In framing my answer, I sometimes reply, “All baseballs are round, but not all round things are baseballs.”
Huh? What’s that got to do with anything?
Plenty. Stick with me here. I’m getting to something.
Memoir is more or less a subset of autobiography. So, while all memoirs are—at their heart—autobiographies, not all autobiographies are memoirs. An autobiography is the story of the author’s life, while a memoir is a sliver of that life. It’s the difference between a whole cake and a slice of cake.
There are other distinctions, too. Let’s explore three basic factors that differentiate an autobiography from a memoir.
Scope and progression of work
Autobiographies encompass an author’s entire life—interweaving historical details like date of birth and any early significant events that may have taken place before the author was consciously aware of them (e.g., the early death of an elder sibling, family relocations, the impact of war, etc.). Memoirs focus on a particular swath of the author’s life—perhaps a particular period of time or a grouping of specific types of experiences (e.g., being bullied in middle school, an unusual career choice, various illnesses, etc.). Moreover, an autobiography is likely to move chronologically, while a well-crafted memoir may begin at any point and carry the reader forward and back through time, as necessary.
Documentation vs. dramatization
While both are based on real life, autobiographies contain more documented facts, specific dates, and detailed information; they also require extensive fact checking, and read more like historical documentaries. Memoirs tend to read more like novels; they feel more intimate in approach and presentation. An autobiography is more about presenting historical details and events, while the usual goal of a memoir is to expose underlying themes or emotional revelations through perspective rather than data.
Famous vs. ordinary people
The last major distinction between autobiography and memoir is that autobiographies are frequently penned by celebrities, famous folks whose life stories are likely to be of broad interest to the general public. Memoirs may be written by anyone with a story to tell.
Boiled down to their essentials, autobiographies are fact and detail based; memoirs are experience, memory, and emotion driven.
If you’re contemplating memoir writing, you’ll find no shortage of people offering advice on how to do so. This article, from The Write Life, outlines six straightforward, no-nonsense tips for writing a compelling memoir.
Instead of simply telling your story, you’ll want to bring in sensory and experiential details to enhance your memoir. Don’t let the lesson you’re trying to convey flop about or lie on the floor. Make it get up and dance. You’ve got to keep your audience engaged. Fold in elements from the world around you as you relive the experiences you describe. Pull your readers along and make them experience everything along with you.
As with any other literary form, to write memoir well, you must read voraciously. To get you started on building your library, here’s a piece that not only discusses how to write a memoir, but details the differences between memoir and autobiography—drawing on examples from noted memoirists—and cites authors whose works you’ll clamor to add to your reading list (including Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith).
Before you begin your memoir, ask yourself, “Why am I writing this?” Answering honestly could save you from entanglement in an extensive, potentially ugly, legal battle. Are you writing a memoir to re-create your past and share the wisdom you gained from your experience? Or are you lashing out at the 10-year-old who humiliated you on the playground in third grade? Maybe vindictively exposing years of wrongdoing you witnessed by coworkers at your last job?
But don’t try to encompass your entire life story into 250 pages. Remember, this is a memoir, a snapshot of your life, not a sweeping saga in technicolor. This should help you retain your focus.
If your motivation is along the lines of the latter examples, you would do well to think long and hard before you start writing. Spite or revenge is seldom a good motive for writing a memoir. Oh, you’re probably itching to get back at that schoolyard bully, and it might feel liberating to do so—and name names in the process; but you risk running afoul of somebody’s pride (and even the libel laws) and get yourself in some serious trouble. In that case, you’re better off writing it all out—every last bit—including places, dates, and the exact shade of the hideous green jacket Johnny T. McWombat wore that blustery October afternoon he shoved your face in the mud puddle behind the slide. Then do yourself a big ol’ favor and tear up what you wrote. Or burn it. Seriously. You don’t need that kind of trouble.
Change names to protect yourself from the not-so-innocent
If you simply must proceed with your exposé about the goings-on at work and can’t resist including that one story—you know the one: about the guy doing donuts in the parking lot who slammed into the CFO’s brand-new Ferrari—at least have the decency to tweak some details. For instance, change the name and location of the company, the coworker’s identity, and/or the name (and perhaps job title) of the official whose car got totaled. This is especially important if there’s any doubt about the veracity of those details, or if there’s speculation as to whether said coworker really was the one who wrecked the big guy’s car.
On the other hand …
There’s another school of thought on using actual identities (or relationships) in the context of a memoir: “If people wanted you to write nice things about them, they should have behaved better.” While there is merit to this reasoning, there’s considerable danger in it, too. Step carefully if you choose to rat out your sister Mildred over her calling cousin Becky a useless heifer at Aunt Sue’s wake, and causing that awful ruckus at the funeral parlor. Even if that is true, consider whether the satisfaction of seeing it in print will offset having to encounter Mildred (and Becky) at every family function the rest of your life.
Even if you believe you’ve taken every precaution, it’s wise to be prepared. A coworker or relative could see himself (or herself) in your writing and take you to task—or even to court—over it. And while successful defamation-of-character or invasion-of-privacy lawsuits over memoirs are rare, forewarned is forearmed. Here’s some handy info you can tuck away should that scenario crop up.
When beginning my as-yet unpolished memoir, Confessions of a Reluctant Goddess, I conducted what I call the “soul dump”—I wrote down everything, without regard for spelling (I know, hard to believe, right?), sentence structure, style, flow, names, or whether cousin Becky really was a useless heifer.
Only after everything had been spilled onto the electronic pages of a bulging Word document—with its silent cursor eye endlessly winking, winking, winking at me—did I begin to judiciously cull words, ideas, sections … and people’s identities. Now in my second draft, I’m deciding on elements I can leave alone, ones to rewrite, and others to discard.
Now the question is: Which sliver of your life will you memorialize?
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.