Memoirs vs. Biographies

Updated: Mar 21

Memoirs are factual stories about someone’s life. ‘Memoir’ is from the French word memoir, which means ‘reminiscence’ or ‘memory.’ They are a part of the nonfiction literary genre and are usually told in the first person. We might expect the information the author provides in a memoir to be factual, but that doesn’t mean the memoirist won’t occasionally embellish the truth to tell a more interesting story.

Memoirs vs. Autobiographies

Memoirs are typically classified as a sub-genre of the autobiography. The main difference is that a memoir is more focused. An autobiography typically spans a person’s entire life and contains intricate details like the writer’s family history and childhood. A memoir, on the other hand, is much more centralized. It’s a story about a time in someone’s life or a major event that occurred, or maybe it focuses on a special place that the writer liked to visit during the summer.

5 ELEMENTS of Memoir

Memoir tells a compelling story using truth, theme, 1st person POV narration, voice, and a fifth element—the M&Ms of writing, Memory and Musing.


It really happened. We know the trouble writers can get into by not remembering this. But the bigger dilemma is how not telling the truth leaves the reader; it not only weakens the relationship with the author, it destroys it. No longer trust them. This can be tricky because not everything in a memoir is word for word true. Who can remember exactly what their dad said at breakfast fifty years ago? Dialogue serves to further the theme.

In memoir, the author stands behind her story saying to the readers, “This happened; this is true.” What is important about this is that the reader believes the story is true, which in turn requires the writer to be rigorously honest.

2. THEME Memoir is different from autobiography in choice of subject matter.

JB: “An autobiography is a story of a life: name implies that the writer will somehow attempt to capture all essential elements of that life. …Memoir, on the other hand, makes no pretense of replicating a whole life. Indeed, one of the important skills of memoir writing is the selection of the theme or themes that will bind the work together…”


JB: “Voice has been said to be the fingerprint of the writer, not the person on the page… The writer with her own particular linguistic quirks, sentence rhythms, recurring images.

4. POV- First Person Narrative

First person (singular):I—“I woke up this morning.” The narrator is the protagonist; the person who is telling story.

JB: “Separating yourself as a writer from yourself as protagonist will help give you necessary perspective to craft memoir as a story. It will also decrease the degree to which you feel exposed as others critique your work.”


Memoir is about perception. What is important/significant about a particular set of events? What do you remember about a certain event? Why? What did you think when it happened? What do you think now? The M&Ms of memoir. In a sense, in writing memoir “It is all about you.”

6. Write 10 defining moments in your life. Group them according to categories. Are there themes? (loss, birth, love, moving, change, success, tragedy, ambition, relationships, coming of age)

Qualities of an impeccable memoir

The voice is first person singular: I, not we, one, or you.The memoirist is the main character, the someone for readers to be within the story.The writer’s thoughts and feelings, reactions and reflections, are revealed.There’s enough context – background information – to understand the events of the story. The context is woven into the story.A reader can envision the action – can see what is happening.A reader can imaging the setting – where and when the memoir is unfolding.A reader can imagine the relationships between the characters.The dialogue sounds like these people talking, both what they would say and how they would say it Boy, you’re going to be sorry versus You will be sorry.The place is slowed down so a reader can enter the story and live it, moment to moment, with the characters.There isn’t unnecessary information: the writer leaves out what a reader doesn’t need to know.The lead invites a reader into the world of the memory.The conclusion is deliberate: it represents a writer’s decision about hoe to leave his or her readers.The writer isn’t acting as a reporter: the writing is subjective, the writer’s truth.The writer invents details that fit with the specific memory and the writer’s theme or purpose.The memoir sounds and feels like literature and not reportage.The reader learns something about life by reading about a life.It focuses and reflects on the relationship between the writer and a particular person, place, animal, or object.It explains the significance of the relationship.It leaves the reader with one impression of the subject of the memoir.It is limited to a particular phase, time period, place, or recurring behavior in order to develop the focus fully.It makes the subject of the memoir come alive.It maintains a first person point of view.Memoirs have an introduction with an attention grabbing opening.They include details that set the sceneThey move into personal conversations [anecdotes]They include emotions and feelings.Memoirs include a flashback or background informationEvent 1- The main action of the memory and the rich details and thoughts that were drummed up.Event 2-the next thing that happened- details and feelingsEvent 3- smaller details that you want the reader to knowLater Events

Once you have the desire line, you can lay out the events of your book. What did you do to get what you wanted? What got in your way?

Begin planning your story arc by jotting down a list of actions and obstacles:

I wanted ______________(the desire line).

To get it, I ______________(action).

To get it, I then ______________(action).

But ______________(obstacle) got in my way.

So, I ______________(action).

(And so on.)

The Desire Line

The first step in drawing an arc is to answer this question: What did you (as the narrator/protagonist) want in the story you’re telling? In her book on writing memoir, Your Life as Story, my friend Tristine Rainer calls this the desire line. The struggle to achieve the desire drives the book. (You might have heard fiction writers call it the through line.)

You should be able to state the desire line in a sentence:

I wanted to be a psychiatrist.

I wanted to stay in the police department.

I wanted to love my stepson.

I wanted to make a new life in Uganda after the death of my wife.

I wanted to be a model though I weighed 160 pounds.

Keep in mind that the desire line can change by the end of the memoir. For example, a teen author might begin by chronicling the methodical engineering of his own destruction, but end by deciding he wants to live. Even so, it’s his original desire that drives his character to that unexpected conclusion.

Don’t expect to come up with your desire line immediately: It’s not that easy. At first, I thought the desire line for my book about my relationship with my teenager was, “I wanted to keep my daughter safe”—but then I realized that was more about her than it was about me. The desire line must be one that makes the story about you. In my case, I had to keep searching until I found the right desire line: “I wanted to be a good mother.”

Make your desire line as specific as you can. Avoid vague desires like, “I wanted to be loved,” or, “I wanted to belong”—they’­re too general simply because everybody wants those things. If you’re stuck, a good way to come up with the specific desire line is to write a one-page fantasy in which you get your ideal ending in the story you’re telling. That’s the story of you getting what you wanted. Now: What was it?”

Source: http://www.writersdig…­


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