Memoir, autobiography, biography: People do get these three narrative nonfiction types confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir — because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining. The two which you write about yourself are stories using the first person, with the word I.
A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life — only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?” As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should always see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride — plus the rigors of publishing a first book.
A story that is all about you, but with every significant event included, written in chronological order. Drama is still important because this tale unreels in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. It was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. Publishers enjoy releasing autobiographies of the lives of celebrities. Many are ghost-written. Readers believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but those ghosts are channeling that voice. You can write your autobiography and publish it yourself. Giving it an audience requires making readers care about you.
A complete examination and retelling of the life of someone who is not the author. It covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader experience the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.
Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because the writing should become daring — works with what they’ve experienced or seen first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you can prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’re writing doesn’t portray actual events.
It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after: the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection. That’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s a boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.
This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.
That, dear writer, is the license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story. Write a memoir. It’s the form publishers are most likely to buy when the story is about you.