Autobiography and Memoir

By Bob Hart 

“Whatever one says, and whatever one writes, is indelibly part of one’s personal chronicle. Like much of cultural history, the significance of these words will be determined by others.” (Words Consigned to Posterity The Florida Writer, 5, #1, p 31, 2011)

Many years ago, following a severe blow to the head, I lived for a short period entirely in the present, not knowing who I was, where I was from, or what the future would be. I hung in limbo, conscious of myself, aware of existing, but without reference points. Random images popped up—memories in a whack-a-mole game—which escaped as fast as I swung the mallet of recognition. My name, and where I lived, were out of reach. Over a few days, memories crept back, without fanfare, as if the empty pages I turned were no longer blank. I remembered first a girlfriend from two years previously, in enough detail for the staff to contact her. She identified me, providing a name for my hospital chart. Gradually the security of my history crept back.

Those few days without memories had me worried and scared. Memories are more than recollections of our past. They are the foundation of our lives, providing our present and our identity. The personal history they represent gives us worth, and provides a meaning for our lives.

We deal with our past in many ways. A few memories we hide in a diary or journal meaningful only to us. Many of us can only savor our worth if the experience of our lives is shared, to write about it with an audience in mind. This requires an autobiography, or a record of part of our life as a memoir.

Amazon puts autobiography and memoir in the same category. Both are based on truth, but there is a key difference that publishers use—the timeline covered in the writing. Samantha Dunn, journalist and award winning author, has provided a simple definition. “Autobiography is the story of your life; memoir is a story from your life.”

If I wrote about my complete life, from London in WWII, growing up in Africa, through my education and work history, I would write my autobiography. If I chose to write about the summer in my junior year in college when I lost my memory, or the time my parents sent me a live crocodile that would be a memoir.

Unlike the linear plan of an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a theme, event, or choice. It can start anywhere, and can move back and forth in time.

Another difference is the way they are written. Fiction is created by the imagination; Nonfiction is based in fact; Creative Nonfiction is factual writing about real people and events told using fictional techniques so that your readers are as engrossed by fact as they are by fantasy. Memoirs fall under the heading of Creative Non-Fiction—truthful stories told using all the elements of storytelling, setting, character, conflict, change (character arcs), theme.

It has always been accepted that certain rules exist, conventions related to this genre, which must be followed. The story must be truthful. There should be no fictitious, distorted, or ‘imaginary’ facts. The writer does not have the license to lie. Dialogue, after a lapse of time, cannot necessarily be verbatim, but it must provide the essence of what was communicated. And a memoir should carry a theme, a message the writer is trying to relate. Good memoir borrows from fiction, following the rule that the story is not as important as the way it is told.

If you are contemplating writing stories from your life, the decision is between an autobiography, or a memoir, perhaps several memoirs. Before striking fingers to keyboard, you should ask yourself, and answer truthfully, a series of brutal questions.

Who really cares about your past? Will anybody else want to read this? Is the story of your life something only your mother or your children would read, or can it be related to a wider audience?

To be effective, both autobiography and memoir must have a theme—what the story means, its relevance to life—that can be about good and evil, trusting friendship, a devious agenda—basically, what life lesson does it illustrate? Your writing must show what you learned, or how you changed.

Traditionally, autobiographies for publication have been written, or ghost written, by celebrities, politicians, or the notorious. Unfortunately, the lives of ordinary people mean little to the reading public, unless you are an extraordinary writer who can transform the story of your life, into a best seller, such as The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, or Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. While both these have been categorized as memoirs, The Glass Castle is much more autobiographical.

Well-written memoirs are popular and saleable.

Autobiography and memoir represent the largest group writing about self in our Florida Writers Association (FWA) chapter, represented by several in progress, and two self-published books, Through Slanted Windows, Dave Archard, and my own Cage Liners. Veronica Hart’s first sale was a fictional memoir about the funeral and memorial service of a real young girl, a Jane Doe, killed and unclaimed in Albany, New York.

Unfortunately, because of the rising popularity of memoirs, the creative non-fiction standards have become blurred. Some authors have taken liberties in the way they tell their stories, re-imagining scenes, inventing dialogue, and creating composite characters, often exploiting so many fictional techniques their books are, in effect, fiction.

Modern autobiographies have also borrowed from memoir technique, engaging the reader with development of character, emotional resonance, and the enthusiasm of the author. Even Barack Obama (Dreams of My Father) has been criticized for changing names, merging characters, and shortening the timeline. To his credit, he admits to these ploys in the introduction.

In a less famous example, I used similar techniques in Cage Liners, stories and events during fifty years of veterinary practice. As Mark Twain said, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Where memory failed, my imagination took over without telling me or uttering a whisper of guilt. Were these moments mine, or have I plundered the memories of others? Did I plagiarize their history, creating a cutting edge to my life where there had been little but a featureless plain stretching as far back as I dared remember? Although all the events happened, what emerged in the forty stories in the book was a mixture of truth and some embellished stories.

Memories have the power to evoke love and hate, joy and fear, remind us of our triumph and failure—in fact, they can recreate all the emotions we are capable of feeling. There is no need to question the reason we might want to share these. However, sharing a personal story with which others can empathize is the ultimate act of trust. This is who I am. This is why I am. This is what I am. This is how I am. Accept me.

The usual advice is, unless you are a celebrity, or are writing for your immediate family, focus on writing a memoir about a significant event in your life, one that had meaning, that illustrates a theme and resonates with readers. Then write about this in the best way possible, using the techniques of fiction to bring your story to life.

However, this is not to discourage anyone from writing the story of their lives. It may be necessary or cathartic, and it might be what you need to express or unload before putting on paper what you really want to write.

If all else fails, consider using events in your life as kernels for fiction.

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