I do a fair amount of work on Twitter these days, both for myself and for clients whose social media I oversee. And I do spend time where the writers are.
As I’m navigating the various profiles and tweet streams of my fellow wordsmiths, I occasionally stumble upon the profile of an aspiring author who insists he’s writing his…biography.
I must admit, I cringe a little. Not because I’m being a judgmental jerk, but because I want this guy to succeed. Oftentimes it’s obvious the writer is trying to be taken seriously, and hoping to get “discovered” by a Twitter-roaming literary agent or acquisitions editor. So I cringe because I know this person isn’t clear on what a biography is — and I know he should be, if he intends to be treated like a professional.
Writing your biography is somebody else’s job — not yours. The author of a biography is writing about the life of someone else. Typically biographies are about the rich and famous: actors, corporate giants, star athletes, politicians.
When you’re writing a true story about yourself, you’re either writing a memoir or an autobiography.
Okay, what’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
An autobiography is a book the author writes about himself, but it tends to be broad in scope, covering all the major events and phases of his life. In an autobiography, you’re likely to learn about the author’s birthplace, his parents and siblings, his education, career, marriages, children, etc. This is why autobiographies are usually written by older people. An autobiography takes a birds-eye view of the author’s entire life — so if you’re, say, 21 years old and you expect to stick around for a while, it doesn’t make sense to write your autobiography. You’ve still got a lot of living left to do. What you want to write will most likely be a memoir.
A memoir focuses on a narrow sliver of the author’s life. Rather than covering all the major areas of an individual’s experience, it gives the reader a more detailed glimpse into just one part of that life. That one part can be defined in many different ways, such as a period of time, an emotional challenge, or an illness or other adversity.
And by the way, this is why it’s possible for one author to write multiple memoirs. He hasn’t lived more than one life – he’s simply writing separate books about separate aspects of his life.
For example, let’s look at the multiple memoirs of Wade Rouse and Josh Kilmer-Purcell.
Josh Kilmer-Purcell debuted on the literary scene with his memoir I Am Not Myself These Days in 2006, which was about his adventures as a female impersonator. Later, in 2011, Josh published The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir. Two books about two very different periods in his life.
Wade Rouse has written several memoirs, including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, a book that tells tales from a time when he worked in a high-brow prep school. In his book America’s Boy, Wade wrote about the challenges of growing up gay in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1960s and ‘70s. In still another memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, Wade relates the story of moving to rural Michigan and adjusting to life in the remote woods.
Memoirs also tend to be more personal and reflective than autobiographies. Think about it – an autobiography has a lot of ground to cover. It’s a summary of a person’s entire life.
But a memoir has more room to breathe. The author has gained some distance between herself and her experience and has identified how that experience has changed her. Memoirs helps us learn more about ourselves by looking deeply into what others have learned about themselves.
– Kim Brittingham