Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

How would you explain the difference between memoir and autobiography?

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I’m sort of shooting from the hip here, as I’ve never made a study of various writing “genres,” nor had any formal training about the distinction between a memoir and an autobiography. But I’m very interested in both genres and I would love to get a discussion going about autobiographies and memoirs.

My understanding is that a memoir is more selective and has more “wiggle” room for faulty memory than an autobiography. As I see it, an autobiography is the writer’s best effort at a chronological account of his life. A memoir, however, can be more subjective, may even have events told out-of-order chronologically. That is not to say a memoir is fiction, or contains falsehood. Some high profile writers recently fell into the career-ending trap of faked memoirs that were more fiction than fact.

For example, I’ve been reading “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back,” by Frank Schaeffer. In his Prologue to the book, on page 6, Schaffer insists his work is a “memoir, not a biography,” and explains his understanding of the distinction, ending the Prologue with this “caveat”:

“What I’ve written comes from a memory deformed by time, prejudice, flawed recall, and emotion.”

I think that’s a valid distinction between “memoir” and “autobiography” — a written work flawed with the warts and blemishes of time and memory.

What do you think? Let us know, please.

Oh, and by the way, I highly recommend Schaeffer’s book if you’re at all interested in the life and ministry of his parents, the two very well-known fundamentalist/evangelical writers, Edith and Francis Schaeffer.
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