Confusion between these two types of nonfiction is natural because they both focus intensely on the authors’ personal experiences. They describe their lives from their own perspectives. The main difference is the completeness of the story. A life is like a rope with many fibers woven or twisted together. Our lives are not just about one thing, and we are not just one thing: we are children, parents, artists, patients, workers, and students. We might also be addicts or reformed criminals, an abuser or the abused. An individual can focus his or her identity around a job, socioeconomic status, or religion. A person may identify as a teacher, mother, or Christian, but she is not one of those; she is all of those. An author of nonfiction chooses to write about some of their identities or all of them at once.
As the name implies, autobiographies are like biographies – just written by the person currently living the life. Autobiographers gather all the threads that make up their lives and pick as many apart as possible for the reader. They often begin with the start of their life from. Here the author tries to explain his or her life as a continuum from beginning, often the date and place of birth, to the time of writing so a reader will understand his or her journey in life as completely as possible. Autobiographies tend to be longer than memoirs because of this, but they are usually not as long as biographies. A famous exception to this is Mark Twain’s autobiography, Accomplishments, with its delightfully romping 700 pages.
The main difference between these types of personal exploration is a memoir only takes a select number of those life threads and shows how they are woven together. A mother’s battle with cancer and death wound together with adopting a little brother, beginning a literary career, and awkward romances may make a fascinating memoir if done well. Dave Eggers does just this in his modestly-named memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The ideas may seem disjointed, but it works and works well. Memoirists also tell their stories less objectively, and often with a less formal voice than autobiographers. Memoirs tend to be more in-depth and full of vibrant scenes. Eggers lets us sit by his side while his mother is sick, while she dies, and while he drives with his brother to California in an effort to escape their exploded lives.
The memoirist must choose which threads to investigate and from which to pull scenes. The remaining threads are left unwritten, and unlike autobiography, the author can feel free to write another memoir showing how some other threads of his or her life wind together. Eggers did not go into his childhood, health, or religion. But perhaps he has another book in him about some of these other topics. Another difference between memoir and autobiography is you don’t have to stop at just one.
While there may be some overlap between memoirs from the same author, the topics are generally separate. The authors create different books by pulling apart different threads from their lives. Frank McCourt focused on being a child in an impoverished Ireland in Angela’s Ashes, and in his second memoir, ‘Tis, he appears as a man freshly returned to America, struggling to make his way. Abigail Thomas wrote Safekeeping about her first two marriages and raising children while saving the third marriage for a main subject in her second book, A Three Dog Life. Her third memoir is called What Comes Next and How to Like It, and in it she gives us an idea of what life is like for her as she and her family ages. All three books are about her life but different parts of it. From the fibers in her one rope, she created three separate books.
Like individual memoirs themselves, a collection of memoirs can play with chronology. Most memoirs follow the tradition of taking us from one place in time like childhood and bring readers through to adulthood. For example, famous memoirist Mary Karr wrote the best seller The Liars Club (1995) which is about growing up with dysfunctional parents in unstable, disastrous conditions. She then wrote Cherry (2001) documenting her coming of age and sexual awakening. Her third memoir, Lit (2009), is about her alcoholism in adulthood. The books follow chronological order: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, but a series of memoirs doesn’t have to keep this organization.
Augusten Borroughs has written six memoirs. Each memoir covers new ground but some loop back in time. His book, Running with Scissors (2002), is about growing up, his next book, Dry (2003), deals with alcoholism as an adult, but his fifth memoir, A Wolf at the Table (2008), doubles back to reveal a side narrative that rides parallel to the first memoir and examines his abusive father from the childhood perspective. This works because in his first memoir, Borroughs hardly mentions his father. This is partly because there was so much revealed in the threads of the book already. Adding a full exploration of his complicated relationship with this complicated man would be too much. It might have been unbalanced, but it almost certainly would have been too long. To solve the problem Borroughs created two stories from the same period of time.
Autobiography has its place as a more informative venture structured by confirmable facts rather than mostly memory. It is usually written by important figures who want to focus on their experience as a whole using as much objectivity as possible. They usually tell their story in one perspective: the present adult voice. While successful memoirists employ a dual perspective of both the person living the experience and the person telling the story. This allows the reader to follow along with the child or the addict while still getting the analysis of the more mature voice of the narrator/author. Autobiography and memoir are two of the most sought-after genres today, and they have graced the bestsellers’ lists since the beginning and will do so for the conceivable because nothing is as fascinating to so many people than other people, their thoughts, and their experiences.