What’s the Difference Between Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Life Stories?

My mom far left with her sister, mother and brother

My mom far left with her sister, mother, and brother

I must admit that I haven’t given much thought to the finer distinctions between life stories, memoirs, autobiographies, and personal essays until I came across Sharon Lippincott’s fine blog The Heart and Craft of Life Writing .  In a January post she loosely defines an array of life writing approaches:

  • Lifestory — informal vignettes of specific memories and events written from a personal perspective. There is no right way to go about it. They can be as informal as a journal, as impersonal as a document, or as insightful as memoir. They can be rough drafts or highly polished. They can stand alone or be incorporated as elements in a longer work. They are the perfect place for a beginner to get started.
  • Memoir — a highly personal account of a specific period of aspect of life. Memoir emphasizes personal reaction and interpretation as much or more than events. It generally implies more literary focus and polish and may evolve from a collection of lifestories.
  • Autobiography (chronicling) — an overview of your life, generally written in chronological order. The focus tends to emphasize events and circumstances more than personal observation and interpretation.
  • Journaling — a repository of raw thoughts, memories, and insights. A tool for discovering insights and documenting and recording events. Journaling is highly personal and there is no right way to do it.
  • Documenting — memorabilia that genealogists treasure like a birth and marriage certificates together with constructed documents like a time line of your life, an account of a specific event including details. Many autobiographies serve to document the details of a life. These documents often serve as supplementary material for other writing.
  • Personal Essay — the other end of the line from documenting … or maybe not. Essays document insights, beliefs, opinions, and interpretations rather than facts. An ethical will is a type of personal essay.
  • Poetry and music — valued and time-honored forms of expression….

I like Sharon’s list and would add a couple of other categories to what I call Life Narratives. Family histories are another form of narrative.  I  define them as a work that covers a span of a person’s life and includes details of other family members such as parents and grandparents, aunts, and uncles and brothers and sisters. Certainly Scrapbooking which has become the choice for many who want to capture their family story is another form of Life Narrative. I know some who have used Quilts to record stories -  the most famous of which is the The Aids Memorial Quilt.

What I find wonderful about all these ways we can capture our stories is that it reveals the richness of possibilities. So if you’re struggling trying to think of how to begin your story, maybe knowing that you don’t have to go the traditonal route will spur you on!

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4 responses to “What’s the Difference Between Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Life Stories?

  1. Great additions to the list Dan. This teamwork stuff is one of the things I really love about life writing and about blogging. Thanks for stopping by my blog and I look forward to bouncing things around every now and then.

  2. Another related, but distinct term, would be genealogy. I tend to see genealogy as being a more systematic study of ancestors than family history. It may also be less narrative.

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