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.


Story endings that fit their means

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So much has been written and said about the Sopranos finale. I’m prepared to give a writer like David Chase any kind of ending he wants to his epic television show.

The commentary on the “surprise-cut” ending calls out viewers’ preferences for story. The howlers, well, they like genre stories: mystery, sci-fi, romance, all respectful of formula and always with a resolution. As in the Tom Waits song, they all “want to know the same thing we all want to know — how’s it gonna end.” Genre sells best. That’s why the howls are loudest this week.

A significant minority of viewers have sounded off with satisfaction after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” cut off in mid-chorus, with a sudden cut to black. They’re literary readers, in my view, who enjoy stories with an ending you create yourself, like life. So few times do we know how everything turns out. Or if we do know, we’re wrong, because we have only our own point of view to consider.

I laughed out loud at the ending — after a moment of wondering about our satellite reception. David Chase has always used a “take it or leave it” approach to his HBO storytelling. Characters dropped, plot lines left tangled. If the howlers had looked closer at his style, they shouldn’t have been so stunned.

But millions of people, from the sports-talk host Jim Rome to my grocery store bagger, all had a better ending in mind. A flock of yay-ohs, all wanting to write the sweetest part of Chase’s story for him, to act as vicarious storytellers. Chase fights for his story, outlasts actor holdouts, agrees to write and produce about twice as many episodes as he wants. In his moment of ultimate spotlight, everybody wants their ending tacked onto his story.

You want an ending to a brilliant story with mesmerizing characters? Write your own damn story. Then you are entitled to whatever finale you can dream up. Asking for anything else is an ending that’s beyond your means as a storyteller.

Writing a double life

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My friend Laurie Cosbey, who’s working on a psychological thriller, spread the word about a storied novelist’s double life as a writer. Joyce Carol Oates has a well-known literary bibliography, including her more-than-autobiographical novel The Falls, based on Oates’ formative years in the Niagara Falls area of Western New York.

But Laurie told our manuscript response group that Oates has got two other outlets for her creativity.

She is a bestselling literary writer, but she also writes genre fiction under a pseudonym Rosamond Smith. She says her genre work is all about doubles. I think that’s something all writers are interested in, because we seem to be living double lives, one in our work and one in the world. She also writes suspense novels under the name Lauren Kelly.

There’s even more to Oates. She’s a prolific essayist, too.

In her book of essays, The Faith of a Writer, she’s interviewed about her 738-page epic Blonde: based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates won the National Book Award at age 32, one of the youngest winners ever for a novel.

Hooray for hens and their book buying

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Back at the WLT Agents & Editors conference, Evelyn Palfrey introduced me to the term “hen-lit,” books aimed at the beyond-30s generation. (It’s what she’s written, and well, too.)

This morning I saw this item in the report from Debbie Ridpath Ohi:

Hyperion launches new imprint for women

Named Voice, the new imprint is just one of several aimed at female readers. Warner Books already has a women’s imprint called 5 Spot and will be launching Springboard Press in the fall; aimed at baby boomers, a large percentage of its titles will cater to female readers. “Voice is specifically focusing on women from their mid-30’s and older and will have a resolutely anti-chick-lit bent,” said its founders.

There’s more in a New York Times story.

I don’t know if I want to put too fine a point on this, but if you’re writing fiction, you’re writing for women, three readers out of four. Of course, you should write whatever story is in your true voice. But imagine telling it to your sweetheart, girlfriend, wife or office pal, if you’re a fella — and if you care about getting picked up by a publisher who’ll print more than 1,000 copies of your book

Slipstreaming toward a genre

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One of the hard things for an writer to accomplish is knowing where their book will land on a bookstore’s shelves. Write a mystery, romance or western, and you have no challenge on this score. Write a story that simply tells a tale, though, and you have two choices: mainstream, or slipstream.

The latter term was coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in 1989, and it’s even got a Wikipedia entry. Eventually that entry will lead you to Sterling’s article. He quips that he’s made up the word based on mainstream. Slipstream is also a kind of propulsion drive used in Star Trek, too, but in Sterling’s view it’s a story that crosses genres (say, sci-fi and mainstream) and describes a world that’s different.

For a master list of the wide and wooly range of slipstream, have a look at the titles Sterling compiled along with Nova Express sci-fi editor Lawrence Person. (Both living in Austin, by the way, home of our Writer’s Workshop.)

Sterling’s article is worth reading if you’re writing something that isn’t quite one genre or another. For now, I’ve decided that Viral Times is slipstream fiction. It’s not a section in Barnes & Noble, but at least it’s a more accurate description of how rich the story will be once its finished.