What are you writing?
Before exploring other tips I used, some of which might help you in writing your own memoir, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the difference between biography and autobiography, and between autobiography and memoir.
Let’s take the first two. A biography is an account of a person’s life written posthumously, though not always, by someone else—many unauthorized biographies of actors, musicians, and heads of state see publication while the person is still alive. An autobiography, on the other hand, is told by the subject of the book.
Although biographies tend to cover an entire life from birth to death , autobiographies can present a good portion of the person’s life from earliest memories up to the present.
So, how do you know you are writing a memoir and not an autobiography? Both are written in the first person, even if, as is the case with some autobiographies, a professional writer develops the manuscript. The main difference between the two is scope and tone.
An autobiography covers more territory, and because the emphasis is on events rather than the subject’s inner life, its prose leans toward the formal. A memoir, however, focuses on a shorter period of time, presenting events or anecdotes that reflect a particular theme to which the author reacts. Because the author’s feelings breathe through the story, memoirs have a more personal quality and are less formal in tone than autobiographies.
Found in all three genres (Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs) is the “tell-all” book. The public has a thirst for reading biographies or autobiographies that chronicle past affairs of a princess or celebrity. And the more salacious the details, the more satisfied the reader. When a memoir’s sole purpose, however, is to expose a relationship, sexual or otherwise, with a famous person, this type of book slips from the “tell-all” category into the “got-ya” territory. The author is using the person’s celebrity to capitalize on a relationship gone sour. I cringe a little. That is not to say that memoirs should be scrubbed down of anything that is controversial or unknown about the author. But in effective memoirs, the revelations deepen the author’s narrative, exposing the self rather than tainting the reputation of someone else.
In my next blog, I will discuss Andrew Tobias’s memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World, and its sequel, The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up. An American author and journalist, and since 1999 Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Tobias used a literary device in his first memoir to reveal a secret he had kept from the world until then. I will show you why that technique was unnecessary for the sequel.