Autobiography and Memoir
A Beginner’s Guide to Writing About Your Life
“Put yourself in their shoes” is a phrase you might have heard a hundred times over. What is it, really, that you can learn from reading about another person’s life?
On the flipside, what is it that you can gain from writing about your own life? Well, for one thing, it allows you to sort out your ideas and emotions about the things you’ve been through, the people you’ve met, and the things you’ve learned. They are unique and distinct because they are your own experiences, set in a specific place, happening at a given time, and seen from your own perspective.
There are several types of life writing: biography, autobiography, and memoir. A biography is an objective account of a person’s life written by someone else. The subject of a biography is usually a historical or public figure, and biographies may be written with or without the subject’s authorization. It is written from a third person point of view. An autobiography, from the Greek words autos (self), bios (life), and graphein (to write), is also an account of a person’s entire life, but unlike the biography, the subject is also the writer. A memoir, from the French word mémoire (memory or reminiscence), is similar to the autobiography in that the subject is also the writer.
On this page, we focus on writing about one’s own life—the autobiography and the memoir. These two types can get confusing because they are quite similar. Let’s discuss them in more detail to help you decide what type of book you would want to write.
Autobiography vs. Memoir: What’s the Difference?
usually encompasses the author's entire life
covers specific moments from the author's life
An autobiography is a comprehensive account of a person’s entire life with all the important details to tell us the full story. It can begin as early as one can remember up until the day it is written.
A memoir is a slice of the pie, so to speak. Maybe it is all the stories collected from working as a deep sea fisher in the Pacific, or the lessons learned from being a twenty-something designer in New York City, or an incident that completely changed the direction of a person’s life. It is more limited in scope, focusing on specific aspects or moments in a person’s life.
usually written chronologically
can move back and forth in time
An autobiography follows a more straightforward path that usually starts with the writer’s childhood and continues all the way through to the different stages of life.
A memoir doesn’t need to follow this linear path. It can shift back and forth in time, focusing more on theme rather than chronology.
places greater emphasis on facts and historical context
emphasizes personal experience, memories, and emotions
In an autobiography, the accuracy of the details are of special importance. It can be considered as a broader view of a person’s life, placing emphasis on facts and how they have lived as a part of society in a particular time.
A memoir is more of a deep dive into moments in someone’s life. It is more intimate, more personal, and more emotional. It does not necessarily give all the facts about specific moments, though; it’s more about how the writer feels about those experiences and their impact on the individual’s life.
formal and objective
less formal, more subjective
An autobiography has a formal structure, told in an objective manner, while a memoir has a more fluid flow and reads like a fiction novel, with colorful descriptions and dialogue.
usually written later in life
written at any point in the author's life
In most cases, an autobiography is written at a later stage in life, when the author looks back and portrays life experiences, failures, and achievements. A memoir, on the other hand, can be written at any point in life—whether as a teen, an adult, or a retiree.
A brief history of the autobiography and 7 steps to help you get started.
Autobiographies Through The Ages
The term autobiography was coined in the 17th century and only used as a critical term in the 1970s, but first-person autobiographical writing has been around since antiquity. The personal narrative has appeared throughout history, from Julius Caesar’s accounts of his war campaigns in 58 BCE, to Sima Qian’s anecdotal character sketches near the end of the 2nd century BCE, to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars two centuries later which mixed of character sketches and chronological narratives.
The first autobiography ever written is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in Latin in the 5th century, while the first one written in English was The Book of Kempe by Margery Kempe, published in the early 16th century. In the 2nd century, there was a rise in narratives about saints and venerated persons, which later shifted to kings, tyrants, and knights. Life writing then took another step towards modern sensibilities with Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III. During the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his own confessional account, which spurred other writers such as Johanna Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, and Giacomo Casanova to create similarly constructed narratives. James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which scholars regard as the world’s best biography, was also produced during this century.
In the 20th century, The British critic Lytton Strachey transformed the biography genre with Eminent Victorians, which led to other writers imitating his style, resulting in a biographical boom in the 1920s. Under the waves of feminism, life writing changed again with Nancy Milford’s Zelda. The world wars brought the genre to a whole new level as memoirs emerged voiced not by generals but by victims. Notable examples of this were The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Weisel’s Night. The 1990s were dominated by memoirs of average lives as people sought to preserve their ancestors’ and their stories. From the 21st century onward, more people view written legacies as a personal and family responsibility, and the popularity of life writing continues to this day.
Getting Started On Your Autobiography: 7 Steps
Find your why
First off, you must be clear about why you are writing an autobiography. What is your motivation for writing it and what message do you want to convey? As you embark on this writing journey, keep your purpose in mind, always referring to it for guidance and direction.
Think about your audience
Who would you like to read your autobiography? Maybe your family members? Long-time friends? Be mindful of how they will play a part in the story of your life and what details about them you should include. Perhaps your autobiography might also appeal to a wider audience. What interesting facts and life lessons could they find in your book?
Create an outline
Before diving headfirst into writing, consider making an outline. Start as early in your life as possible, moving through the months, years, and decades, with important points laid out. List your life events in chronological order—your birth, your childhood, your first job, and so on. This becomes your guide when dividing your book into sections and throughout your writing process.
Identify the main characters
Make a list of the most important people in your life. Start from the beginning and move all the way to your most recent days. Make separate notes about each person and think about how it was that you came to know them. Write all of these details down and rebuild your memory of them.
Human as you are, you cannot remember every single detail of your life and the world that you live in. To make sure that the details in your autobiography are as accurate as possible, research is extremely important. Check journals, letters, photo albums, and newspaper articles. Interview family, friends, teachers, schoolmates, co-workers, acquaintances, and any other people that you think might help you remember pertinent details. It is a rewarding activity that allows you to confidently tell your story.\
Add details to key events
After you’ve listed the key events, you can expand them with more details to drive the narrative. When did it happen? Where? Who were the persons involved? Were there obstacles, triumphs? Refer to your research to get the details right. If you are missing some more details, that’s okay. Do a little more research. Spend more time expounding on the events that you feel have shaped your life the most.
Write your first draft
Now that you have all the details you need, it is time to begin your life writing journey. Find the perfect place to start writing, take a deep breath, and write your first draft.
Of course, no first draft is perfect. You would need several more rounds of proofreading and refining your work until you get that final manuscript.
7 types of memoirs and 10 tips to help you write yours
Types of Memoirs
The Experience or Event Memoir
A lot of times, memoirs are based on pivotal events in a person’s life. This focuses on a specific experience or series of related events that the writer has gone through. Oftentimes, it involves difficult ordeals—a tragedy and its aftermath, coping with an illness, experiencing war, surviving loss, dealing with a breakup. It could also describe victories big and small—experiencing a breakthrough, finding their muse, winning a game, rising from poverty, learning to accept themselves. Whatever the situation, the writer has learned from that experience, and in sharing that story, the readers can learn from it too.
The Childhood Memoir
Ah, the childhood memoir, full of innocence and discovery—the nostalgia for the days of youth, the many firsts. Where did you grow up? What was it like there? Who were your friends? Pets? How did you spend your summers? How did it feel when you turned ten? There are some childhood memories you can never forget; moments that have shaped you early on, both good and bad.
The Coming of Age Memoir
The rite of passage from childhood to adulthood is a most tender, sometimes tumultuous time, and certainly a great source of stories that are perfect for a memoir—a first kiss, young love, heartbreak, confusion, surprise. Every emotion is magnified, new truths are discovered about one’s self and about the world. Sometimes, the transition comes earlier than most, when children are forced to grow up in extreme or traumatic circumstances. Sometimes it can be difficult and painful. But it can also be wonderful. Whatever happens during one’s coming of age, it is a defining moment in a person’s life that is remembered for years to come.
The Family Memoir
A family memoir can be a celebration of family traditions, practices, and even recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation. It can be a heartfelt tribute, a keepsake to remember all the things that the family has gone through together, or a portrait of family dysfunction. For some, it might bring light to family members who may not always have been appreciated, long-lost relatives, and even family pets. There are so many facets of a family—different beliefs, dynamics, and experiences—that would make a fascinating memoir.
The Professional Memoir
Memoirs about profession can be quite an inspiring read. Your story about your work can be a blueprint for young people wanting to go on a similar path as yours. Whether from a career in health, education, sports, music, politics, or woodworking, there are numerous lessons to be learned from this type of memoir.
How did you begin? What was it like when you were starting out and when you had been doing it for a few years? What was the highlight of your career? Setbacks? Maybe you are writing one as a retired professional, looking back fondly at your career. No matter where you are right now, or how your career is shaping up to be, there are countless nuggets of truth that can be shared.
The Travel Memoir
To see the world is a dream for many people. To write about your travels is a generous act that can be both educational and entertaining. You might want to talk about your adventures in the jungle or your voyages in the open sea. It can be stories of a bustling metropolis where you discovered the most unforgettable pie, or the quaint town where you met the most wonderful people, or a train ride where you saw the most spectacular sight that was gone in an instant but stayed in your memory for years. Maybe it is about a single moment in a totally unexpected place, an unplanned stop on your journey, or a place you keep going back to, year after year. A travel memoir invites your readers into your experience and lets them join you in your travels.
The Confessional Memoir
There are many things that people keep secret because there’s never a good time to talk about it or they are too afraid to show others that part of themselves—some of these things they’ve kept for many years, sometimes for most of their lives. In this type of memoir, the writer might reveal some past wrongdoing and the repercussions of that, or how amends were made. It can reveal your deeper, often darker, motivations and inner turmoil. A confessional memoir is an opportunity for you to get things off your chest, a chance to say what you’ve always wanted to say. In the process, it might help your readers come to certain realizations or find the courage to share more of themselves to others.
Writing Your Memoir: 10 Tips
Narrow your focus
The good thing about a memoir is that you can focus on a specific theme that you would like to write about. It is important to decide on this theme before starting to write your manuscript. Look back at it often and treat it as a compass so that when you find your narrative wandering, you can think about your theme and get back on track.
Make it more than just about you
While the memoir is undoubtedly about you, just remember that what makes anyone’s life interesting is also the interactions with other people and the world. How did you react to certain events in your life? Are there people that have helped you navigate through some rough patches? Did you have any rivals? Who were your closest friends? Think about these things as you tell your story and include them in your writing.
Do some research
While some memories will, for sure, be more vivid than others, it does still help to take a more scientific approach to recalling the details of the events that you’d like to write about. Like in writing autobiographies, research is important in gathering details that you might otherwise have overlooked or forgotten. A well-researched memoir adds depth and truthfulness to your story.
Have a target audience in mind
It is vital to think about who might read your book. Not everyone can necessarily relate to your memoir and that’s perfectly fine. Thinking about your target audience allows you to write in a manner that is clear to them. Write as though you are speaking directly to them.
Write in your authentic voice
There is no voice like your voice, this much is true. The things that you have gone through in your life are things that only you will ever experience from your point of view. It is unique and worth sharing. Write your memoir in the way that you would write it, in your authentic voice. Be brutal or vulnerable, if that’s who you are. Be honest and sincere about the things that you have experienced and how you felt about them.
Take inspiration from fiction novels
While a memoir is essentially a nonfiction book, it does not mean that it has to be boring. One can take a lot from how works of fiction are written and structured. Describe characters and settings in interesting ways. Include dialogue and sensory details. Draw the readers into your life and make them feel what you are feeling.
Don’t be afraid to show your emotions
As mentioned earlier, one of the major differences between a memoir and an autobiography is that a memoir allows you to be more expressive about your feelings. It allows you to be more raw and vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to describe to readers how you truly felt about certain people or moments in your life. If you take your reader through an emotional journey, it will likely stay with them and make your story more memorable.
When writing about other people, write responsibly
Then there is the difficult task of talking about other people, some of whom we might not remember in the best light. Be careful. Stick to the facts, making sure you do not defame anyone or falsely accuse them. Avoid throwing people under the bus. What you write can affect the lives of the people in your story and the lives of their own friends and family. It can even lead to lawsuits. You may consider changing the names and places to protect people’s privacy. Be truthful but be considerate.
Let someone else read it
It’s very easy to fall into the rabbit hole of your own writing—reminiscing about all the great and wonderful things that you’ve been through or recalling a horrible tragedy—that you can sometimes get lost in it all. You may have some blind spots about certain aspects of your life. You may miss some important details here and there. The best way to remedy this is to have one or a few people read your manuscript—those whose opinions you trust and respect, be it people that you know personally or professionals that have a lot of experience . Have them tell you what they think about the story, like whether it seems lacking in detail or if there’s too much going on. A trusted person’s review is valuable to any creative process and gives you a chance to do any necessary edits after.
Commit to finishing your book
Finish your book. Write this down and put it up in a place that you can see every day. There might be days when you feel like giving up. That’s okay. Take a break to recharge and then go back to writing. Write till the end and, when you do, it will be the most fulfilling feeling to put the final dot to your book and let it out into the world.
Why Write About Your Life?
One of the most common misconceptions about life writing is that you have to be famous to write about your life for it to be of any value to others. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a lot of people in the world can relate to non-famous people on a daily basis. They see themselves in you and your struggles and your triumphs, and even in the mundane, everyday things.
Share your joys, your fears, your hopes, your dreams. Let them get to know you through your stories, and they’ll experience it in their own way and find meaning in it.
Whatever you decide to write—be it an autobiography or a memoir—your story is worth sharing. Write your story.