By Christopher Acheson
In February, Ivan, our content developer, wrote a blog explaining our vision – “Empowering entrepreneurs to share the ideas, knowledge, and stories that are under threat of never being told.” The concept of sharing stories particularly has been on my mind recently.
Autobiographical content has been in the news since the start of the year. Prince Harry’s Spare obliterated the previous Guiness World Record for most non-fiction release day sales. On top of this, more and more content is coming out on the experience of living through Covid from the perspective of politicians, business leaders, and the normal person on the street.
Last year, we helped Reesha Armstead produce her #1 Amazon Best Seller, The Covid Kaleidoscope. This is a unique and powerful account of the pandemic from the perspective of a disabled person – a viewpoint which often is overlooked.
I often find that people get confused when talking about this kind of content – when is a book about your life and experiences a memoir, and when is it an autobiography? When writing a book yourself, how do you choose the one that fits your needs and story the best?
On the surface, they are similar to each other. Both are written in the first person – the author is directly talking to the reader. They both also are intended to share the story of the author’s life and experiences with the reader.
However, the sense of focus and scale with which they present the author, their experiences, and their stories could not be more different. So, what is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?
What are autobiographies?
My favourite Douglas Adams quote is the first line of The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe:
“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
An autobiography doesn’t need to go quite that far back, but they do need to tell the story so far, starting from the beginning. Their purpose being to provide a complete historical record of the author’s life.
This has several effects on the book. Traditionally, an autobiography will be less creative with the narrative structure, telling its story in chronological order up until the present day. The events described tend to be presented more objectively and factually – allowing the reader to interpret and make their own conclusions more freely.
What is a memoir?
“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
The opening line of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil never fails to grab my attention as the narrator recounts his personal memories of having been on the scene at some of humanity’s darker moments. At its heart, that is the essence of a memoir – an author using their personal memories and experiences to share a story.
Memories themselves are funny things. Two people experiencing the same event will each remember it differently – reaching different conclusions and learning different lessons as a result. Your memories are the point at which the objective nature of reality starts becoming your own uniquely personal and subjective story.
A memoir as a result tends to be much more focused on a particular event or theme in the author’s life and allows for far more creativity from the author. In order to share their unique perspective and interpretation with the reader, the author is able to use storytelling techniques and far more subjectivity in how they describe and portray events.
Memoir vs Autobiography: Which should I write?
At this point, the separation between the two genres of book starts to become clear.
- Historical approach
- Present the author’s life story from childhood to the present
- Present the facts and events objectively and in order
- Narrative, storytelling approach
- Present the author’s memories regarding a specific event or theme in their life
- Tell the story in such a way to present their perspective or message to the reader
This means that each genre is going to appeal to two very different groups of readers. On top of this, the authors themselves are going to fit into two separate categories.
A reader of an autobiography is generally going to be interested in reading for the historical value of the book. What they are looking for is the chain of events that shaped the author into who they are today, as told and remembered by the author themselves. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom is a powerful example – showing us Mandela’s path from childhood, and then imprisonment, to becoming South Africa’s first black head of state.
By necessity then, this means that the subject of an autobiography is going to have a life story about which the public is going to be interested. This does not mean that you automatically have to be famous to have your own autobiography, a particularly eventful life can make for an engaging story – though high-profile celebrities, public figures, and business leaders will always have a solid audience.
While not every life story makes for a strong autobiography, you might still have a story that is perfect for a memoir. The readership for a memoir is a far more general and flexible audience – they might be looking to walk in someone else’s shoes, learn more about a theme that has been key to the author’s life, or learn from the author’s example.
Shoe Dog, by Nike founder Phil Knight, is a fantastic example of a business memoir – telling the story of Nike’s growth from startup to a multinational corporation worth over $30 billion, punctuated by Phil’s own personal experiences and insights. A powerful and relevant story can make any message hit home with so much more power and impact.
What if I need help writing?
Writing a book is a massive project by itself. On top of that, sometimes writing about yourself makes the task so much more challenging. When the story you are telling is so intensely personal, it is understandable that you want to tell it right.
You aren’t alone.
Countless best selling autobiographies and memoirs were written with the support of ghostwriters. A talented ghostwriter is able to use their professional experience and writing ability to not only help you build and develop the story you want to tell, but also support you with choosing the genre, format, and structure that will help it shine.
Our Content Creation Process™ is designed to accompany you every step of the way, from the initial spark of inspiration to the launch of your next bestseller. Don’t let your story remain untold – book a clarity call to find out more about how our team of experts can bring your vision to life.