At times literary terms are more confusing than any math theorem. Memoir and autobiography are one of those confusing terms. Many people consider them the same genre and even use them interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing. There are some technical dissimilarities between both. They do have similarities but they also have some sharp differences.
Memoir includes a person’s memories or certain experiences of life, pointing towards a certain theme or point. On the contrary, autobiography represents a historical or famous personalities’ stories of lifetime. A Memoir may include few or more than a few events whereas autobiography covers all events of life of that particular person.
As you can guess from the defining statements, they are not the same. For instance, Malcolm X autobiography cannot be called a memoir because it does not revolve around a few life incidents of Malcolm but rather sums up the whole life incidents of Malcolm, in chronological order. Similarly, The Liar’s Club is a memoir because it focuses on the theme of childhood through life experience of the writer Mary Karr.
The only similarity between the both is that they are written in first person pronouns. The narrator is the writer himself/herself. But we are here to explore the difference, so let’s see what the distinguishing factors are.
1.Historical Facts vs Emotions
Both memoir and autobiography are based on facts. Both narrates the real life experiences but they differ in presentation. In autobiography you would see the emphasis on historical facts, what happened and how it happened. While in memoirs the happenings are true and factual but the emphasis is on emotions. Facts are manipulated for the theme.
Autobiography is often read as a history book because it tells the history of the time that person was living in. For instance, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography presents his life but it also represents history of struggle of black people
2.Chronological vs Random order
No doubt both autobiography and memoir are about a person’s real life events but they set apart in their presentation of experiences. Autobiography starts with childhood, and ends at the death or retirement phase of that figure. It must comprise all events from childhood till death or old age. On the other hand, in memoirs events are selected on the basis of relativity to the theme. It depends on the theme in memoirs. All the events could be from childhood or from adulthood, or maybe from both. For instance, The Liar’s Club includes all events of childhood.
Technically there are no protagonists. However, you may say there is one main character in both, around whom the autobiography or memoirs move around. In an autobiography, this central person should be a famous or historical figure. He must have been or should be a historically prominent person. In contrast, memoir could be of anyone, not necessarily a well recognized person. It could be anyone, the only limit is of relatability. For example, Nelson Mandela as a person stands out in history, but the childhood events of Mary Karr is not something extraordinary. The Liar’s club is a story of simple ordinary childhood.
4.Point of interest
We all idolize and admire people for different reasons. Similarly, we also want to know about their life journey, personal and impersonal experiences. Autobiographies give us the opportunity to view the life of our favorite famous celebrities. The interest lies in the personality. However, in memoirs the point of interest is the theme. Readers are interested in the theme, style of writing of the author, etc. For example, Night by Elie Wiesel is a story of her experience along with her father in Nazis camp. Here the focus is on the holocaust but the add of writer’s experiences further illuminates the subject. If you like to know about the life of Benjamin Franklin, you should read his autobiography rather than the memoir.
Remember, memoir could be of anyone and can be about any life event or incident whereas autobiography should be about historical figures, written in chronological order. After reading this short passage you would have an idea of how they distinguish. A person interested in reading literature should at least have a basic understanding of the difference to enjoy reading.