Autobiography v Memoir

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
  •  (memoirs) an account written by a public figure of their life and experiences: “a revealing passage from Khrushchev’s memoirs”
  • 2 an essay on a learned subject: “an important memoir on Carboniferous crustacea”
  •  (memoirs) the proceedings of a learned society:Memoirs of the Royal Society


  • an account of a person’s life written by that person:he gives a vivid description of his childhood in his autobiography
  •  [mass noun] autobiographies considered as a literary genre:”the book is a curious mixture of autobiography and fantasy”

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:

1. An account of the personal experiences of an author.
2. An autobiography. Often used in the plural.
3. A biography or biographical sketch.
4. A report, especially on a scientific or scholarly topic.
5. memoirs The report of the proceedings of a learned society
Whereas for ‘memoirs’ the same site reads:
1. (Communication Arts / Journalism & Publishing) a collection of reminiscences about a period, series of events, etc., written from personal experience or special sources
2. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) an autobiographical record
3. a collection or record, as of transactions of a society, etc.
According to these definitions, I believe a written account of a particular memory, written in narrative is a memoir, whereas a collection of memories are ‘memoirs.’
Norman Campbell told me many stories about his life and he was a born storyteller. I have actually recorded them sequentially. Have I scribed Norman’s autobiography or written his memoirs?
Well folks it’s over to you. What do you think?

About Diana Jackson

Author of 'The Healing Paths of Fife', Historical Romantic fiction ~ The Riduna Series set in 19th and early 20th Century a murder mystery ~ 'Murder, Now and Then' and two memoir. What links my books ~ history! Riduna on Twitter and on Facebook too!
This entry was posted in Here and Now, Memoirs, Norman, The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Autobiography v Memoir

  1. J T Weaver says:

    My understanding, simplistic perhaps, has always been that a memoir is “what you can remember” about your life and an autobiography is what you can research about your life.

  2. Pingback: Memoirs and Memories | pattytmitchell

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