Take This Quiz to Find Out Whether You’re Writing a Memoir or an Autobiography

Woman wondering what to call her book.

A common question authors have about memoir is whether they’re writing a true memoir or an autobiography. At Write My Memoirs, we don’t make much of a distinction. If you’re writing about your life, you’re writing about your life. Call it a memoir, autobiography, life history—we don’t think it matters much.

But authors continue to want to know how to label their book, so here’s a little quiz for you to take to reveal whether, according to conventional thinking, you’re writing a memoir or an autobiography.

Answer TRUE or FALSE:

  1. My story begins with my birth and continues to present day.
  2. My primary goal in writing my book is to provide information for my children and grandchildren to “know where they come from.”
  3. I would like generations in the future to have a reliable record of what life was like growing up when and where I grew up, as well as what adulthood was like during my lifetime.
  4. Even though my life hasn’t been that unusual, I want to get all the facts down.
  5. I want to tell all about my life in my own voice.
  6. The hurdles I overcame in my life holds lessons for other people.
  7. Even though I am not yet 50 years old, I want to write my book now.
  8. I will devote much of my book to one part of my life that was very unusual.
  9. Something happened to me that I feel compelled to write about.
  10. Everyone asks me about one episode in my life, so I decided to write about that.

As you may have figured out, this list of 10 questions starts heavy on autobiography and progresses incrementally to memoir.

Give yourself 1 point for each time you answered TRUE to questions 1 through 4.
Give yourself 2 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 5 and 6.
Give yourself 3 points for each time you answered TRUE to questions 7 through 10.

Scores

1-8: Your book is an autobiography.

9-16: Your book is more of a memoir.

17-20: Your book may not have enough of a theme. Rethink whether you want to focus on one part of your life or write a comprehensive book that gives relatively equal treatment to all parts of your life.

Hope this helps! At Write My Memoirs, we want to help you write and publish the best book you can have to represent your perspective of your life.

New Feature: Post Your Writing at Write My Memoirs!

Our Write My Memoirs community and services are growing!

While we provide publishing services to help you publish your book, we’re hearing from some authors who do not want “paper publishing” but would prefer to share their work by displaying it online. Some people want to share with the public, and some want a link to send just to friends, family or other selected people.

In response, we have created a new section on Write My Memoirs that gives you, the author, your own publishing page! See an example here of an author who would love for you to read her stories. As you can see, we place the copyright symbol with your name at the top of the page to protect the work.

Let us know that you would like to post your work, and we’ll create a page for you. You can use our Contact Us form or write us directly at: support@writemymemoirs.com

Our tech department is working on a way for you to upload your work, but for right now you can just email the work to the “support” address, and we’ll get it online within a day or two. Then we’ll supply you with a link to share. Feel free to include images.

This is a good way to get feedback little by little as you write each chapter. You can learn how people are reacting to your writing and continuously polish it as you work to complete your book. And if you’d like, at our very reasonable prices we’ll supply a quick edit before you display your work.

What Types of Memoirs Sell?

Getting published can feel like such a crap shoot. No wonder memoir writers doubt whether they have a story that’s compelling enough to appeal to publishers. At Write My Memoirs we believe that every life is interesting and worth documenting, and we help our writers self-publish so that they will have a book to hand out to friends and family. But getting a monetary offer from a publishing company that wants to publish your book is a whole different kettle of fish.

As I look over the 2019 “best memoirs” lists, I’m finding several common themes among the books that get published and then land on these lists. The books from 2019 tend to break down into four categories:

  1. Celebrity. Being famous is the obvious way to get a memoir published. Unfortunately, that route is not open to all of us. But you can be barely famous if you’re around celebrities all the time and will dish on things you know about them—or if you’re related to, or a good friend of, someone very famous. This summer saw the release of Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter of Apple founder Steve Jobs. So her memoir sort of doubles as a biography of her famous dad, who’s the one readers are more interested in.
  2. Highly unusual life event. This seems to be the dominant category for the non-famous writer. If any segment of your life—job, childhood, illness—is way off the typical path, people will be interested in reading about it. Tara Westover’s Educated and Karen Keilt’s The Parrot’s Perch: A Memoir are good examples of this. And, as with celebrity, you can write from your own perspective if the person with the unusual life event is a close friend or relative, as Tom Weidlinger does about his father in The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness, and The American Dream.
  3. Moderately unusual life event. Lots of people have had cancer, but writers keep finding new ways to share the experience. You can perhaps focus on the aspect that was the most unusual or talk about your very individual way of processing it. In No Happy Endings: A Memoir, author Nora McInerny tells what it’s like to lose a father, husband and unborn child all within a year. While that much loss all at once is not typical, it’s also not unheard of, but McInerny has a way of connecting with the reader. Another popular 2019 memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard by Jennifer Pastiloff, takes the reader through the author’s experience of triumphing over her own difficulties by helping others heal at yoga retreats. There are tons of yoga teachers out there, but Pastiloff tells a new story.
  4. Fresh twist on ordinary life. Although this strikes me as the toughest category to break through in publishing, a very gifted writer can do it. You just have to be a keen observer of life. We all are players in some story every day; it’s the way you look at it that makes it uniquely interesting. While this type of memoir can be poignant, typically it’s written with humor. With this year’s release of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, author Trevor Noah joins a long list of comedians who put their humorous spin on their life story. Sharing life’s true experiences in some form of memoir is a regular pastime for Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Handler and many others. And although the celebrity factor plays here, their humor and writing is part of what made them famous, so the books stand on their own.

A Memoir Doesn’t Have to be a Book Format

When you have a compelling story to tell, the most obvious route to take is to write a book about it. But that route is not the only way to get where you’re going. Between technology that provides do-it-yourself options for creative projects and established websites that accept personal essays, you can find lots of alternatives to the traditional book. So let’s look at those options.

  • Book. When you write a book, you have something in your hand. You can give it to friends and family members. You can list it on Amazon and sell it. You can convert it to digital and sell it as an e-book or get a narrator and also have it as an audio book. You put your book on your bookshelf, and it’s there forever. At Write My Memoirs, we offer writing services to help you publish.
  • Short-form written account. Maybe you want to describe just one incident in your life or a short period of your life, and really there’s not enough content for a whole book. You can write a personal essay instead. Websites like Narratively accept well-written, compelling essays. I have had personal observations published on Motherwell, BoomerCafé and SixtyAndMe. Or consider a magazine article format like the one we offer here at Write My Memoirs.
  • Video. Creating a video of your story may seem like an overwhelming undertaking, but if you take it step by step it can be manageable even for a novice. Gather the photos and video clips you’ve taken during your life, focusing on the incident or period you want to cover. Write a script that you’ll read as a voiceover, and also take some video of yourself talking to the camera about your life. To put it all together, you’ll need video editing software. There’s a learning curve for sure, but the learning can be the fun part! Here’s a powerful example of a video created by a friend of ours about his journey as a young man who lost a leg to cancer.
  • Dedicated website. It’s so easy to purchase a URL that has some form of your name—johnsmithmemoir.com kind of thing—and the website host will have page builder software that makes it pretty easy to upload text and photos and embed videos. It turns into a sort of private Facebook site just for you. The beauty of this option is that you keep updating it, so it chronicles your life in a dynamic way rather than having a beginning and an ending.

The important thing to remember is that your life is worth documenting. There are many ways to leave a legacy for your children or a record for history. Choose one—or try them all!

Putting Other People in Your Memoir

Your story is yours to tell, and no one can take that away from you. But everyone’s story involves other people. It’s very common for memoir authors to be concerned about their rights and obligations surrounding the role other people have played in their lives, especially if the memoir depicts a negative impact. We’ve addressed this issue previously on Write My Memoirs here and here.

So we’ve talked about legal aspects, but what about the ethical ones? And how will your memoir change your relationships? Even the relatives you didn’t include may be upset with you about what you did write. Your aunt, not mentioned at all in your memoir, may never speak to you again because you wrote negatively about your mother, who was her sister. Perhaps your mother is no longer alive, and your aunt feels that you shouldn’t write about someone who cannot defend herself. Or maybe even though your memoir concerns your early life, your current adult children would prefer you to keep your story to yourself. Perhaps they’re embarrassed by something you’ve written, or they don’t want to be forced to become public figures if your book sells well.

Memoir authors and coaches have opinions all across the board on this, but I haven’t seen anyone make the point that social media has completely changed this game. You have chosen the memoir as your forum. You’ll have it in book form, or ebook only or whatever you want. But everyone who objects to what you’ve written has many opportunities to refute what’s in your book. Facebook, Twitter and the rest provide a forum for everyone. As long as you write the truth as you know it—and it’s a good idea to have some sort of disclaimer saying in your book that the information is accurate to the best of your memory—then you should present your life the way you want. Be prepared for some pushback, but this is your story. The other people can tweet about it to defend themselves.

Memoir Gifts on Father’s Day

We’re getting down to the wire—just a week and a half to figure out what you’re getting your dad for Father’s Day 2019. You know your dad has a lot of stories to tell. May I suggest memoir coaching, writing and publishing services as the perfect gift?

A lot of people start writing a memoir only to abandon it. Why? Because writing a book is hard. From figuring out what to write to organizing the information in chapters to sitting down and grinding out the words, the process can feel overwhelming. Having a coach/editor in your corner can make all the difference.

Our professionals at Write My Memoirs can interview your dad and do the writing for him, or we can coach him to do the writing himself and we’ll edit the work as he goes along. We have a “magazine-style bio” option that produces a magazine-length article all about him, and all he has to do is talk to us and send us pictures. Or maybe your dad’s pretty far along in his memoir, and all he needs is the gift of publishing. We’ll take his document and photos, lay out the book for him and publish it as a paperback or hardback book with as many copies as he wants.

This becomes a gift to the whole family, because you’ll have his life documented in his own voice. Years from now you won’t regret neglecting to ask your dad about his childhood, his days in the military, his work or his feelings about life’s challenges and triumphs. At a certain point, people have most of the material things they need. A gift like this shows your dad that you’re thinking of him beyond yet another necktie or the more powerful drill. You care about his life, and you want to find out more. You care about what he cares about. We would love to get to know your dad and help him have a published memoir!

Get a DNA Test Before You Finish Your Memoir

In the process of writing your memoir, you’re probably researching a bit of your background. You may be checking your parents’ or grandparents’ birthplaces. Maybe you’re asking relatives to fill in a family tree so that you know exactly how you’re related to your cousins. This is what memoir authors have always done. Today you have another tool: the DNA test.

A memoir published earlier this year, Inheritance: A Memoir Of Genealogy, Paternity, And Love, addresses author Dani Shapiro’s discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father. Shapiro traces her reaction from learning this information through fully processing it and then reflecting on it. She discovered this fact when she used one of the DNA testing companies such as the popular 123andMe or AncestryDNA. Shapiro wasn’t the product of an affair, so she didn’t have to deal with a parent’s infidelity or secret life. She’d known that her parents had sought help for infertility, and she’d been told that her mother had been artificially inseminated with her father’s sperm. It turns out that she came about through donor sperm; eventually Shapiro met her biological father. Her book explores the dynamics of parenthood and identity as she grappled with a fresh view of both.

So think about taking one of these tests. The company will give you the names of people who match you, and you may find out that you share DNA with someone you weren’t expecting to turn up as a relative. Perhaps you could contact the person and expand your knowledge of your biological family either just for your own background information or for inclusion in your story. Like Shapiro, you may decide that the new knowledge provides insight for you and has become an important enough piece of your identity to build the book around it—or maybe just a chapter. As commercials for these companies show, maybe you always thought your family hailed from one country and now you know that there’s a broader mix or you’re from a different part of the world altogether.

Also consider the health information available through these testing services. If you have a genetic condition you weren’t aware of, that could affect your outlook about the future or just become something you’ll want to share in your book. In all likelihood, the test will confirm what you already know, both about your health and your genealogy. But writing a memoir is a big project, and you might as well gather as much information as you can before you put your book out there as the truth about you.

To Sell a Memoir, First Build a Fan Base

You may be writing a memoir only to hand out to family and friends, but if you’re hoping to sell it you’ll benefit from earning some credibility ahead of time. You’re an author now, so start establishing yourself as a writer!

Write up an op-ed, share a personal essay, post a fictional story, report on the local angle of a news story or become a frequent commenter on a handful of news websites. Find any way to get your name out there early and often! On each social media platform, you can start a page named after your memoir or attach an ID like “the author” to your name.

For me, the personal essay is the easiest route. One that was posted today on Motherwellmag.com is helping me promote my children’s book, because it’s the article out of which the book grew. Another essay is coming out next week on a site targeted to baby boomers. There’s a website, and usually more than one, for every topic, hobby, demographic – whatever you’re writing about. They don’t all accept submissions, but many do. Look up the site’s guidelines for submitting an article, follow it to the letter and push “send”! Be brave!

As people begin to recognize your name as an author, you can start generating excitement for the upcoming publication of your memoir. Promoting yourself and your work takes time, but you have a lot of options that were never open to the average person before everything went online. Good luck!

 

A Guide for Knowing Whether You Need an Editor

We don’t hide our hope that you’ll come to Write My Memoirs if you want an editor to help you professionalize your writing. Of course we want to work with you! But we’re truthful about it—not everyone needs to hire an editor. We designed this “decision tree” to help you determine whether your memoir would benefit from hiring a professional editor. If you do decide to work with an editor, we would love to step into that role for you.

Attracting a Publisher: Advice from a Memoir Author Who Did It

Linda Strader was getting nothing but rejections when she pitched her memoir to agents and publishers. But a couple of rejection letters became her saving grace when she took their advice:

  • “Memoirs need to be universal—they need to resonate with the reader.”
  • “A memoir must read like a novel.”

After a total rewrite based on that information, Strader’s memoir, Summers of Fire, is now on bookstore shelves, thanks to an acceptance from publisher Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company. At editingpen.net, Strader shares tips for making it happen:

  1. Give the publishers what they want. They know what sells. Go to publishers’ websites and read best-selling memoirs by people who are not famous.
  2. Make your memoir a story. It’s not an essay. You need a beginning, middle and end. And, of course, show, don’t tell. You’ve heard this before, but Strader provides the contrast. Telling, she writes, sounds like: “I walked into the hospital to see my sick mother. She lay in bed, unable to speak. I never did like hospitals, so it was hard for me to be there.” But showing lights up all the senses: “The minute I walked into the hospital, the smell of disinfectant about knocked me over. That odor always made me remember the day my dad died, and now it looked like my mom would follow. When I entered her room, I detected the odor of urine and medicine. Her face was gray, her eyelids closed, but her hair had been carefully combed into her favorite style. A heart monitor bleeped steadily; the oxygen tank whooshed. My mom was leaving me and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it—and I was angry.”
  3. Specify what was at stake, the choices you made and how they changed you. Everyone makes decisions, and facing those forks in the road are what can make readers relate to your experiences.
  4. Be yourself. Write from your heart, reveal your true self, show your vulnerability, expose your fears.

If you do all of that, Strader concludes, “readers will relate.” And when readers can relate to your book, publishers will want to get your book out there.