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Biography, Autobiography, Memoir? What’s the difference?

Biography, Autobiography, Memoir

Caption: Royd Hatta's grandfather sitting on his new  car (1930s Ford Model A?) with his son Shigeru. Royd's grandmother stands with her daughter, May, who passed away a year or so after this picture was taken. 


The terms autobiography, biography, and memoir are occasionally used interchangeably by the public, but they are three distinct, if similar, genres of nonfiction.

Though there are nuances to each genre we can begin to understand each with the analogy of distance:

A biography attempts to illustrate a person's life story from an outsider's point of view. Imagine viewing the subject from 1000 feet away.

An autobiography is when the actual person who lived that life tells their own life story with the advantage of providing insights that only she or he can provide. Imagine YOU telling your story as it is, with your own thoughts and commentary.

A memoir, similar to an autobiography, may dive deeper still into our memories by employing literary devices such as a particular theme, symbolism, and lyricism.


The Biography

A biography is a retelling and description of a person’s life, be they a famous actor, a nobel-prize winning scientist, or an obscure writer from the 19th century.

Typically, biographies are written about well-known public figures or historical characters, with or without their consent, and are meant to cover the subject’s history as objectively as possible. 

Because of this, biographies tend to be written in the third person and take a more formal stance when describing the subject's life,  their trials, and eventual successes. 

An excellent example is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. Authorized and hand-picked by Jobs himself, Isaacson tells the story of a man lauded for building a world-class company from the ground up with a die-hard fan base. 

Through countless interviews and historical contexts, the book provides an unflinching look at the turmoil Jobs’ self-absorbed ambition created in his personal and professional relationships.

It’s at once the story of a man whose skill was gathering exceptional talent and continually reinventing his company to reach ground-breaking goals–often to a fault.

This led to both his being ousted from his own company, and his eventual return to make Apple an internationally respected brand.

The book is a tell-all and tribute to an iconic figure while showcasing the 80s and 90s Silicon Valley corporate wars. At the time of its release, even many of our 5th graders could not put it down.

Steve Jobs Biography


Biographies are typically broad in scope, covering the subject from birth all the way up to their death, and everywhere in between. The details required by a biography involves a significant amount of research and fact-checking, but isn’t personal in quality. Biographies cover much more in the way of facts, locales, history, and less exact phrasing of the subject’s inner turmoil.

Think of a biography as looking at someone from a distance, with binoculars. You log their life as they live it.  You take in the large steps, but not necessarily the individual meals they have every single day. You might ask their companions about them, perhaps take in some meaning from their story to tell others, but you’ll never be so close to truly probe their inner feelings. Facts are what’s important in a biography.

Here are some biography examples many of our staff or students have enjoyed.

Look for these titles at your local library, bookstore (i.e., Linden Tree Books), or follow the links in the images below to Bookshop.org. Through these links we receive a tiny payment that helps support our free Meetup story writing workshops. Thank you in advance!

I am Jackie Robinson Biography Book
I am Helen Keller Biography Book
I am Dolly Parton Biography Book
A Beam of Light Albert Einstein Biography Book
The Girl with a Mind for Math Biography Book
Grace Hopper and the Computer
Who Was Jim Henson Biography Book
Soni Sotomayor Book Biography
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
Rebel Girls Book Biographies

The Autobiography

Autobiographies are biographies written by the subject themself. Typically written in first person, they are not exact counterparts to biographies as they are more personal. After all, the author is writing about themself.

The writer’s biases will show through the writing as they recount their experiences, but like biographies, an autobiography will start at the beginning of the subject’s life and end in the present, covering the events as factually as possible.

Because of this need for factuality, those who wish to write autobiographies will refer to their diaries as source for how they felt at the time of an event, and they may even seek the counsel of those who know them well to provide some perspective and accuracy.

Scrapbook Photos

Think of an autobiography as piecing together a scrapbook of your entire life.

Every event is documented: birth, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, all the way up to the present.

A picture of you is more intimate than looking at someone from a distance, and you can tell a more compelling and thoughtful narrative through these photos.

You might add some of your thoughts on the events, perhaps a few funny little details, and when you show that scrapbook to your loved ones you will certainly comment on the meaning of the events that occurred throughout your life, but of most importance will be the pictures—the facts—themselves.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

by William Kamkwamba & Byran Mealer

As all genres it is a matter of degrees, this book is a hybrid of Autobiography as it told through the boy of the title, William Kamkwamba, and assisted by a veteran reporter, Bryan Mealer, the co-author.

Through a first-person point of view, Kamkwamba tells about the struggles of growing up in one of the worst African droughts and resulting famines. Friends and family lost their lives to starvation. William's desire to attend school was thwarted as his father could not work the fields or find work. Without tuition, Kamkwamba picked a book that was lying around—an electronics manual.

From studying the diagrams to painstakingly reading it, he began to understand the basics, and created a makeshift windmill to generate electricity. It powered cellphones for the village, produced light, and had the promise of pumping water from underground. Soon, it became a working model to inspire others.

See his TED Talk for the synopsis, but read the book to experience life in an African village where the doubters became his advocates. Against the odds of hopelessness, poverty, war, and famine, this book is an inspiration.  

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Picture Book SM

Above: The Picture Book

Below: The Young Readers Edition

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Autobiography


Here some other examples of autobiographies our staff or our students have enjoyed:

Pioneer Girl
Bill Peet
It's Trevor Noah
I am Malala Young Readers Autobiography
March Book One - John Lewis Graphic Novel Biography
Benjamin Franklin Autobiography
Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
Reaching for the Moon
Agatha Christie


The Memoir

Memoirs are the most personal of the three and the most narrow in focus. Similar to autobiographies, they are written in the first person and take a personal look into the writer’s life. They are, in fact, the closest relative to autobiographies. However, there are a few key differences. 

While autobiographies, like biographies, focus on the facts of the subject’s life, through a broad perspective,  memoirs, as the French word suggests, are centered around memories. Specifically, these memories are culled from a specific set of events or topic.

A memoir might take a look at the writer’s childhood and the effects of their upbringing on their current troubles. It can serve as a deep, emotional reflection on the intense portions of their life.

Memoirs tend to center around themes which the writer uses to tie together the various events they cover. In a sense, memoirs are most similar to narrative fiction, with arcs, flashbacks, and even antagonistic characters the readers root against. There are clear plots and progression within the narrative with the entire work culminating in the same way a fiction novel would possess a climax.

scrapbooking

Think of a memoir as your secret diary. You write down your deepest feelings and troubles into your diary, hold it close to you, consult nobody but yourself. The objective facts aren’t the focus; your interpretations and your feelings are. 

The difference is, of course, this diary will be going out for the whole world to see, so if you’re thinking of writing a memoir and want to avoid a lawsuit from the “characters” of your life, you probably should keep things as accurate as possible.

Farewell to Manzanar Memoir

Farewell To Manzanar

by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston 

This classic of California history artfully embeds symbolism to note the struggles loyal Japanese-Americans (J.A.s) endured during their time before, during, and after the Japanese-American Internment of WWII.

It shines through its scenes of how the marginalized J.A.s both harness their culture's wisdom to stay strong and survive, and how it can contribute to bitter separation in navigating the shame within the camps, and the racism outside of it in America. When one has chosen to suppress their heritage to reach the American dream, and it still fails, what else can one choose? 

Manzanar the place and the book is both a reminder of the internal incarceration, shame, doubt, and betrayal that we all would like to say farewell to. 

Here are a few other ground-breaking memoirs to check out. 

Steven King On Writing Memoir & Craft
Poet Warrior Joy Harjo
Red Scarf Girl HD
Hole in My Life Gantos
Where the Past Begins - Amy Tan
Bad Boy Walter Dean Myers

What is the difference between all three genres? In short, 

A biography is the grand telling of another person's life.

An autobiography is an epic telling of your own life. 

A memoir, resembles an autobiography with more attention on a particular theme, symbolism, lyricism, or overriding concept.

In the end, any of these genres may borrow elements of the other so that the author may tell their story in the most compelling way. That's the beauty of writing. It allows us to pull from various facets of a person's world, or our own.  From it, we can begin to fathom all those special moments in our lives, and perhaps share the epiphanies and discoveries we've gain with the world. 

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