Definitions: Memoir, Memoirs, Autobiography,and More!

Patti Miller’s The Memoir Book is an excellent guide to the genre under discussion in this blog and is also the image I chose to illustrate the 100 Memoir Challenge over at Using more than 20 years of experience working as a teacher and coach, Patti Miller gives us a condensed version of her memoir course curriculum, with exercises after each chapter. I hope to use some of these exercises when I teach my own class on reflective writing soon.

Have you ever wondered how to distinguish a memoir from memoirs or from autobiography? Here are paraphrases of the some of the useful distinctions Patti Miller makes. I’ve added several other definitions of my own (creative nonfiction, life writing) for further clarification, and I would love correction and thoughts others might add:

Memoir: A book or essay about the author’s life shaped by some frame: time (childhood only, for example), place, topic, or theme. The author may be published already as a fiction writer or poet or may be writing his or her first book as memoir. This “first book” memoir phenomenon is recent. Writers who have compelling, unusual, stories or whose most compelling subject springs from their own lives are finding receptive audiences.

The term “creative nonfiction,” under which “memoir” now fits in creative writing programs, is a neologism in genre classification. It seems to have arisen at a time when many wonderful writers were using novelistic techniques to create stories that found wide readership: Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, Mary Karr, and Haven Kimmel differ in their subjects, their voices, and their narrative structures, but they all have built successful writing careers primarily on memoir. I think it safe to say there are no precedents for such careers before the twentieth century.

Also, many who will never publish their stories are nevertheless writing them for the sake of posterity. This field is sometimes called Life Writing or Life Stories. Patti Miller’s website describes services that range from courses to coaching to critiquing. Even funeral homes are beginning to use the same concept, networking themselves under the title of Life Stories. They use boilerplate stock on the historical era and then personalize by inserting individual photos and reminiscences into a collage to be used at visitation and/or funeral.

Memoirs: The reminiscences of a public person in relation to public achievements. Generals and presidents write memoirs. Sometimes poets do also. I just read Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. This distinction sometimes breaks down, however. The recent voluminous reflections of Barbara Walters were titled Audition:   A Memoir, Not Audition: Memoirs from a Life in Television (or some such). I wonder if the publisher considered and then rejected the word “memoirs” partly because of the current popularity of “memoir”? Or did Barbara Walters herself, the self-effacing, constantly auditioning persona, reject a word most often reserved for presidents, generals and Nobel prize-winning poets”? If so, one wonders if any women have written memoirs? Good fodder for future posts, perhaps.

Autobiography: Moves from birth to fame (usually written by a famous person) and focuses on the details the author finds most revealing about how he or she developed whatever it was that resulted in fame. The book reads like a biography written by the author who is also the subject.

Personal essay: I like Patti Miller’s description: “If [the personal essay] is the academic essay’s disreputable, eccentric cousin, then it is the memoir’s intellectually playful sibling and the child of confession.” Using the sixteenth-century French writer Montaigne’s word “essai” from “essayer” meaning to try or to attempt, Miller emphasizes the search of the narrator subject of self in relation to the world. “The personal essayist has something to say but is not quite sure what,” says Miller.

Patti also sees travel writing as a form of memoir. I had not thought of the connection before, but I certainly see it. The requirements of truth, clarity, and evocative detail is the same, as is the use of the first-person narrator.

Posted in

Shirley Showalter


  1. […] previously reviewed Patti Miller’s The Memoir Book, which was very helpful for genre definition.  Murdock’s […]

  2. […] I loved this book. Because it covers the entire life of 90-year-old Smith, the label on the cover is autobiography rather than memoir. But that distinction is one that I am more than willing to overlook as I add it to the collection of 100 memoirs we are building here. As I see it, most autobiographies are memoirs even though not all memoirs are autobiographies. (If you want more precise definitions, you might appreciate this previous post.) […]

  3. Lissette Flores on August 31, 2011 at 7:44 am

    And where does a biography fit in then?

  4. shirleyhs on August 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Hi, Lissette, glad you found this post. Biography is a life story written by a person other than the subject. Samuel Boswell’s Life of Johnson comes to mind as a prototype. Are you writing a biography?

    • Lissette Flores on September 1, 2011 at 4:09 am

      I am in the process of writing my life story, it will be in three main parts, childhood, teenage years and adulthood up until now, I think I have enough for three separate books! so I am wondering what category would I fall under?

  5. shirleyhs on September 1, 2011 at 9:24 am

    You are writing a memoir! Or a series of memoirs. Good luck!. I hope you will find the resources of this blog helpful. If you haven’t done so yet, you can subscribe for free by going to the box on the right hand side of every post and inserting your email address. Then you will get regular reviews of memoirs, bits of reflection from me on my own life, and items about memoir in the news. Hope you come back often and feel free to comment and ask questions.

Leave a Comment