I have been prompted to write this post following a discussion with a fellow writer who has been asked to ‘write as a memoir rather than autobiographically.’ So what’s the difference?
Memoir v Autobiography
There is controversy in the literacy world about these two words, and to be truthful a bit of snobbery. If you talk of the one when you really mean the other, it can be seen as quite a crime. Maybe we should be looking at the writing on its own merits instead rather than arguing semantics.
Exploring it a little further I found these definitions from the Oxford Dictionary interesting:
a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge:in 1924 she published a short memoir of her husband
There’s not much difference is there?
The popular difference between the two likens ‘memoir’ more to story telling and tends to be a selections of stories of a person’s life, whether they be written by that person or another. An autobiography, on the other hand, tends to be a more sequential account of an individual’s life, as in the celebrity autobiographies, much in vogue over the last few years. This distinction isn’t clear from the definitions above though.
I really like the following explanation:
- Zinsser on the Art and Craft of Memoir
“A good memoir requires two elements–one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention. . . . Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.
“The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t. . . . Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.”
(William Zinsser, “Introduction.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Mariner, 1998)
What do you think?
Memoir v memoirs
The other thing that raises an intake of breath is the ‘s’ on the end of memoir. Is it memoir or memoirs? I am guilty of confusing the two I must admit. Is it simply a case of ‘plural’?
Here is the definition of ‘memoir’ from the free online dictionary: