Know the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography: all about you


It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.

Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. 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 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?”

Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.

Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. 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 live 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 their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could 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’ll read 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 the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.

Author’s note:

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 license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.

Mockingbird’s mother surfaces at last

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Harper Lee had one good book in her, but it’s sold millions. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 30 million copies since it was first published in 1963. The book still sells a million a year, taught at all levels of school and beloved by fans so ardent that Harper calls them “Birdies.”

Despite working on another novel for years after her only finished book, Lee never published another novel. Magazine articles she wrote seemed forced in the years afterward, according to her biographer Charles J. Shields. It was as if she was funny and honest when she was certain nobody was reading her, Shields said on The Bob Edwards Show this morning on XM Radio. Edwards interviewed him on the release of Shields’ book Mockingbird, a Portrait of Harper Lee.

Then there was a second novel attempt, according to what Shields was able to sleuth out in Alabama. But that manuscript “was stolen, according to her sister. It seems an excuse on a level with ‘the dog ate it,’ ” he quipped during the interview.

Lee is a notorious recluse, appearing just once a year at the Alabama state capitol to congratulate the winner of the To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest. Now she’s bringing her prose back to the magazine pages with an essay about reading habits, scheduled for Oprah’s magazine this summer.

Lee has referenced her memoirs several times in correspondence. Her biographer said he hopes she has at least that book left in her, since she’s a dedicated letter writer. Seeing her friend Truman Capote descend into drugs and disillusion after publishing In Cold Blood spooked her, apparently. Be careful of being published. It can change your writing, if the mother of “Mockingbird” is any measure.