I would never write my autobiography for public distribution.
For one thing, I'm not a famous person, nor have I accomplished any extraordinary feats or deeds. Noted people and celebrities can get away with writing about the mundane details of their lives because publishers understand that most readers will put up with the ordinary to get at the nuggets. They won't do that for Jennifer Semple Siegel or any other unknown.
Also, I did not grow up in a third-world country, served as a child soldier, or been married to a serial killer.
As a whole, my life has been rather mundane, so I would rather not bore a readership with the minutia of my day-to-day life. Let us not worship at the altar of the ordinary.
However, four and a half months of my life were somewhat extraordinary and occurred at a time when the world around me was changing, while I, too, was changing from child to young adult. I didn't exactly do any extraordinary actions, but an extraordinary event happened to me, and I reacted in a way that forever changed the course of my life.
Thus, my 415-page memoir focuses primarily on a finite period of time with some apropos flashbacks and flash forwards.
So, then, what is the difference between "autobiography" and "memoir"?
On Pub Rants, Agent Kristin differentiates between memoir and autobiography:
A memoir is a story (with a story arc not unlike what occurs in a novel) told through a prism of one particular life experience and it usually focuses on a finite period of time and not the person’s life as a whole. A memoir has crafted scenes that build on one another to reach a pivotal moment.These comparison/contrast lists expand on Agent Kristin's definition:
An autobiography has remembrances of important events throughout the author’s life and how it unfolded from that person’s unique, inside perspective. They can be separate from each other and don’t need to build to a climatic moment.
- True first person account (“I”).
- Covers the details of the writer’s own life, from birth to the present.
- Usually written by noted people: actors, singers, writers, politicians, artists.
- Focuses on the autobiographer's life to this point: the events leading up to the autobiographer's professional life, defining moments, roadblocks, and accomplishments.
- Concentrates more on facts and verifiable data (personal papers, official records, journals, letters, diaries, interviews, and newspaper and magazine articles), though personal remembrances are also important.
- An autobiography is likely to include an extensive index.
- Fact-checking of details is likely to be quite rigorous.
- True first person account (“I”).
- Incorporates fictional story-telling techniques and offering some kind of "resolution."
- Covers only an aspect or event of the writer’s own life and is based mostly on recollections.
- Memoirs are written by both noted and ordinary people.
- Usually, the aspect or event itself moves the narrative, not the person.
- The memoirist's viewpoint can be subjective; thus, family, friends, and acquaintances may view the same event differently.
- The memorist concentrates more on personal remembrances, though facts and verifiable data (personal papers, official records, journals, letters, diaries, interviews, and newspaper and magazine articles) are also often used as sources.
- A memoir normally does not require an index.
- Publishers tend to trust the memoirist's voice; fact-checking of details is likely to be minimal, although after recent "faux memoirs" (ala James Frey and Margaret Selzer), this may be soon changing.
For me, one unexpected surprise: during the eight months (2004-2005) I wrote the first draft of I, Driven: memoir of a teen's involuntary commitment, I tended to "revert" back to being 18 years old, and, sometimes, I found it difficult to shift back to the present.
I now know, however, that was part of the process of writing a memoir.
Perhaps those who write their autobiographies also experience this phenomenon as they cruise down memory lane.
"Autobiography vs. Memoir" is copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.
This text may not be republished or reposted without permission.