What’s the Difference?

About a week ago I received a call from a woman who had a few questions about getting an agent. She had written a memoir. I asked her to send me her query letter and a few sample chapters, which she did. In her query letter she referred to her manuscript as both a memoir and an autobiography. So what’s the difference?


While they are both grounded in truth, the autobiography must adhere to the truth. For example, every detail must be meticulously researched and reported accurately. There is no room for interpretation. For example, before the writer can write that her walk from her house to her school was one mile, she better be sure it was one mile not a quarter of a mile. Now that is a small detail, one many likely wouldn’t catch or care about. But bigger inaccuracies will be caught and cause readers to question everything else. For example, to write about being involved in something in which one was not…well, although he verbalized his claims, we all know how that turned out for Brian Williams.

The memoir, while grounded in truth, has room for interpretation. The word memoir comes from the French word memoire meaning memory or reminiscence. If two people witness a crime and are asked to recount the details, from memory, a couple of weeks later, each person would like report the basics of the crime similarly, but the details might differ. One might remember the thief’s shirt as yellow, while the other swears it’s blue? Memory is a funny thing. Over time, for a variety of reasons, it can, and often does, get distorted. That doesn’t give a writer the permission to pull a James Frey and fictionalize their past – that is called fiction, not memoir. But misremembering in memoir happens. As the writer journeys through her past, she pulls from their arsenal of memories, some accurate and some not so accurate. It is important for the memoirist to do her research, but understand as the reader, what you are reading is simply one person’s version of the truth.


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