Monday, January 14, 2008

Memoirs vs. Autobiographies

Since I've recently read three memoirs recently (Running with Scissors: A Memoir, The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club: True Tales from a Magnificent and Clumsy Life, Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found)it begged me to think "What is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?" So I decided to do some research on the subject (gotta love Google).

According to one website,, the main difference is that an autobiography tends to be on the whole life of the subject in chronological order; whereas a memoir is about one specific point in time in the life of said subject.

My own thoughts on the subject are, isn't it easier to fact check an autobiography than a memoir? To me a memoir is one person's recollection of certain events or a period of time in their life seen through their eyes, which can be skewed. The other people experiencing the same events might perceive it differently. This is why I think there has been such rumblings around memoirs ever since the James Frey A Million Little Pieces fiasco. I think there needs to be some kind of fact finding or some type of collaboration of the story and maybe there is and obviously I'm not privy to that information. It might be perceived differently by others, but the events in the books should have at least happened. I'm not saying that people flat out lie (OK maybe I am but not necessarily in the one's I've read) in their memoirs but I do think it's a bit harder to fact check on some one's emotional state during their life, unless it's medically documented, than real documented events they participated in.

I think autobiographies also tend to be about more "famous" people in society than an everyday person; whereas memoirs anyone can write (or think they can write).

Just think about the things you have been through and your thoughts and emotions looking back on an event in your life. When you've discussed it with other people who were there, is their perception the same or different? Can history distort the truth?

I guess this is why I have stayed away from memoirs for the most part and probably won't read another one for a while.


Erin January 15, 2008 at 8:20 AM  

Interesting idea, Julie. To be honest, I had never given it much thought but I can see how that would cause some confusion. However, even history can differ greatly depending on who is telling it. I remember when I was in high school, my American History teacher brought in a book written by the British. Where we can have entire courses here that deal with the Revolutionary War and it is (obviously) a very important event for us, this British book gave it two paragraphs dismissing it as "a disturbance in the colonies" and shrugged it off as a small loss.

I suppose the lesson is to take everything we read with a healthy grain of salt and remember who the author and intended audience are, regardless of whether they are autobiographies, memoirs, or histories.


Julie January 15, 2008 at 8:47 AM  

Interesting point about history. I guess it really does come down to perception.


heather (errantdreams) January 17, 2008 at 12:23 PM  

The explanation I heard in a particularly good memoir class in college was that autobiographies contain the literal truth of a person's life, while memoirs are meant to contain the "poetic" truth of a person's life. I.e., you try to stay true to the emotions and the events and the people as best as you can, but in order to make for a good tale you might, for example, blend two real people into one character or change the ordering of events slightly. The idea is that you try to remain as truthful as possible---no making things up wholesale---but you color that truth in ways that make for more lyrical reading. That's a definition of memoir that I can accept and enjoy.

Julie January 17, 2008 at 1:04 PM  

^Ah so James Frey even strayed from that idea of memoirs. :)

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP