The line is blurry between these two genres, but there is a difference. In my book, Write Your Life: Create Your Ideal Life and the Book You’ve Been Wanting to Write, I distinguish these two approaches to telling your life story in this way:
In your memoir, you explore a particular event, time, person, or place that had a significant impact on your life. Perhaps the two years when your grandfather lived with your family were the most precious times of your childhood. Or, your memoir could reflect on your time spent in the military and how that changed you. Maybe memories of the summers spent at your family’s farm in Iowa remind you of life lessons you wish to share. Or, the knowledge you gained while in the Peace Corps impacted you to such an extent that you want to share those experiences. These are just a few suggestions of life events that could be central to your memoir.
Exploring the totality of your life and zeroing in on a consistent theme is what an autobiography is about. Here, you take readers on a journey through your life, most often chronologically, to examine your personal growth, a realization, or a life lesson. You will examine your entire life and identify a specific theme. Maybe your autobiography will center on your fear of abandonment and how you overcame it. Perhaps you will want to explore how money and finances have been crucial in your life and how these concepts have impacted you, for better or for worse. Or, maybe you recognize the theme of success in your life and how you have experienced success with practically everything you have tried in life.
We often hear of celebrities writing autobiographies. These “tell-all” stories are fascinating to “regular” people. The public is naturally intrigued with the lives of those in the spotlight and enjoy reading about their childhoods, struggles, climb to success, and failures along the way. But autobiographies aren’t reserved for the rich and famous. Although yours might not be a household name, your life likely contains some drama, ups, downs, challenges, and lessons that others would enjoy reading about.
The same is true for your memoir. At some point in life, most people wish to share what they know and what they’ve learned about life. Whether your memoir takes readers through your journey as a successful venture capitalist or your life raising dozens of adopted children, readers will gain a wealth of inspiration when you package your experiences as lessons that people can relate to and learn from.
People love to read human interest stories that reveal the joys, failures, adventures, and emotional experiences of others. Why not turn your life into a story that could change someone else’s life. Either tell it all in an autobiography or tell key parts of your life in a memoir. In either case, include the emotion and the lesson ... and you could have a best-seller on your hands.