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.

Can You Write a Good Memoir Without Fact-Checking? No!

Fact-check your memoir

Memoirs rely on the author’s memory, but we all are  aware that memory tends not to improve with age. It’s well-known that witnesses to the same crime report sometimes vastly different details. When you compare notes with siblings or childhood friends, you’re likely to discover that your accounts of the same incident differ significantly.

In many cases, you can’t know for sure whether your memory is correct. That bullying incident on the playground in fourth grade—did the other kid really say the words you remember? There’s no way to know for sure. That’s ok. Whether it happened exactly the way you remember is not as important as the fact that, in your mind, it did happen as you’re describing it. The incident’s effect on you is clear even if the truth about it isn’t.

But so many small facts can be checked. Today’s technology makes writing a memoir easier than it’s ever been in so many ways, and fact-checking is high on that list. Unlike in years past, there’s no need to sit in a library all day.

If you’re writing about the snowfall that occurred on your sixteenth birthday, take a minute to look up the weather report on that day. If you believe you attended your town’s bicentennial when you were 12 years old, some quick Googling will make sure you have the time line correct. If you describe walking down Center Street to your elementary school, make sure in your hometown it wasn’t spelled “Centre” Street, or it wasn’t Center Avenue. These are not unforgivable errors, but this is your book—why have any error that you can easily prevent?

Show your draft to family members for their input and recollections on the events you describe. Ask them to be particularly attentive to the facts you lay out. A parent, child or sibling may offer a perspective that you hadn’t considered or have some information that would add texture to your account.

Knowledge that we’ve carried with us all our lives can turn out to be our impressions rather than hard facts. Just check out everything you can.

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!

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings
Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If you’re not doing either of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.
Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”
Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”
I have to agree with breaking this rule. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If a sentence or more does neither of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.

Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”

Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”

I have to agree with breaking this rule. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life, but your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.

Why Your Memoir is Good Enough

Why Your Memoir is Good Enough
Here on the WriteMyMemoirs blog, we talk a lot about how to craft a compelling memoir. We give general writing tips as well as targeted advice regarding what makes a really good memoir. But you know what? None of that necessarily applies to you.
Many of you are writing your autobiography not with the hope of scoring a best-seller, but really just to get down, digitally or on paper, a record of your life. You probably want your grandchildren to know about their ancestry and to preserve all of the fascinating tidbits that you know about your family. If you publish it at all, most likely you intend to print a small run so that you can hand out a couple of dozen copies to your friends and family. For those targeted readers, your memoir will be compelling, because they have a built-in interest in your story—either they’re part of it or they know people who are. That makes the reading very interesting!
So please don’t worry too much about whether your grammar is perfect or the structure meets the latest conventional wisdom about how to write a memoir. You don’t really need a focus. If you start at the beginning of your life and work your way through the anecdotes and important facts, that will be just fine. You’re not writing a textbook or a novel; you’re producing a highly personal manuscript documenting, in your authentic voice, the truth about your life.

Here on the WriteMyMemoirs blog, we talk a lot about how to craft a compelling memoir. We give general writing tips as well as targeted advice regarding what makes a really good memoir. But you know what? None of that necessarily applies to you.

Many of you are writing your autobiography not with the hope of scoring a best-seller, but really just to get down, digitally or on paper, a record of your life. You probably want your grandchildren to know about their ancestry and to preserve all of the fascinating tidbits that you know about your family. If you publish it at all, most likely you intend to print a small run so that you can hand out a couple of dozen copies to your friends and family. For those targeted readers, your memoir will be compelling, because they have a built-in interest in your story—either they’re part of it or they know people who are. That makes the reading very interesting!

So please don’t worry too much about whether your grammar is perfect or the structure meets the latest conventional wisdom about how to write a memoir. You don’t really need a focus. If you start at the beginning of your life and work your way through the anecdotes and important facts, that will be just fine. You’re not writing a textbook or a novel; you’re producing a highly personal manuscript documenting, in your authentic voice, the truth about your life.

Think You’re Funny? Write a Memoir

Think You’re Funny? Write a Memoir
Everybody’s a comedian, right? If you’re witty and thinking about writing a funny book, you might want to start with a memoir. New writers are always advised to write about “something you know.” What do you know better than your own life? And if you’re naturally funny, you’ve no doubt been picking up comedy material for decades about your relatives, your pets, school, your workplace, colleagues, friends and the typical, yet absurd, situations in which we all find ourselves. Write out all of those stories, one by one, and soon you will have the chapters to your humorous memoir.
Coming from the opposite direction, you may start out to write an ordinary memoir and discover that through your writer’s eye everything comes out funny. Even though you document your life’s dry facts and chronicle some unpleasant milestones such as parents’ deaths, you may find that what you recall best are the amusing, often heartwarming anecdotes that accompany even the saddest occasions in your life. In developing your voice as a writer, you should embrace that approach not only because it’s your natural voice, but also because humor keeps the reader engaged.
As part of your research, read some funny memoirs! There are plenty available; catch these links on Bookish.com and more on Flavorwire.com. From The Lottery author Shirley Jackson’s 1953 autobiography, Life Among the Savages, to recent memoirs of comedy icons like I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me by Joan Rivers and Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres, you will be laughing as you pick up tips for the construction and flow of a funny memoir.
http://www.bookish.com/articles/can-we-talk-recent-hilarious-memoirs-by-women?=edit1
http://flavorwire.com/281223/10-of-the-most-hilarious-memoirs-youll-ever-read

Everybody’s a comedian, right? If you’re witty and thinking about writing a funny book, you might want to start with a memoir. New writers are always advised to write about “something you know.” What do you know better than your own life? And if you’re naturally funny, you’ve no doubt been picking up comedy material for decades about your relatives, your pets, school, your workplace, colleagues, friends and the typical, yet absurd, situations in which we all find ourselves. Write out all of those stories, one by one, and soon you will have the chapters to your humorous memoir.

Coming from the opposite direction, you may start out to write an ordinary memoir and discover that through your writer’s eye everything comes out funny. Even though you document your life’s dry facts and chronicle some unpleasant milestones such as parents’ deaths, you may find that what you recall best are the amusing, often heartwarming anecdotes that accompany even the saddest occasions in your life. In developing your voice as a writer, you should embrace that approach not only because it’s your natural voice, but also because humor keeps the reader engaged.

As part of your research, read some funny memoirs! There are plenty available; catch these suggestions on Bookish.com and Flavorwire.com. From The Lottery author Shirley Jackson’s 1953 autobiography, Life Among the Savages, to recent memoirs of comedy icons like I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me by Joan Rivers and Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres, you will be laughing as you pick up tips for the construction and flow of a funny memoir.

The Memoir Poem: Another Format Choice

The Memoir Poem: Another Format Choice
Perhaps you’d like to write a mini-autobiography—either a brief overview of your entire life with only the essential details, or a full account of a single event in your life—but you do not feel confident at writing prose. Is poetry an option? It sure is. There’s even a name for it: “confessional poetry.”
Walt Whitman is widely considered to be the first confessional poet, with his Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass infusing first-person narrative into poetry. Before Whitman’s time, it was considered indulgent for poets to insert themselves into their verses. But Whitman seems to have opened the barn door. “For good or ill, we live in the age of the memoir,” write David Graham and Kate Sontag in their anthology, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography.
Perhaps you’ve always written poetry and you’re comfortable with it; then you’re a perfect candidate to express the episodes of your life in verse. If you haven’t written much poetry before but the memoir poem appeals to you, take a course in poetry writing. And, of course, read lots of contemporary “confessional poetry” to get into the rhythm of this genre. Here are a few lines from For My Lover, Returning to His Wife, by 20th century poet Anne Sexton:
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
http://www.amazon.com/After-Confession-Poetry-as-Autobiography/dp/1555973558/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1370379070&sr=8-1&keywords=After+Confession%3A+Poetry+as+Autobiography
http://www.valpo.edu/vpr/byrneessayconfession.html
http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-my-lover-returning-to-his-wife/

Perhaps you’d like to write a mini-autobiography—either a brief overview of your entire life with only the essential details, or a full account of a single event in your life—but you do not feel confident at writing prose. Is poetry an option? It sure is. There’s even a name for it: “confessional poetry.”

Walt Whitman is widely considered to be the first confessional poet, with his Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass infusing first-person narrative into poetry. Before Whitman’s time, it was considered indulgent for poets to insert themselves into their verses. But Whitman seems to have opened the barn door. “For good or ill, we live in the age of the memoir,” write David Graham and Kate Sontag in their anthology, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography.

Perhaps you’ve always written poetry and you’re comfortable with it; then you’re a perfect candidate to express the episodes of your life in verse. If you haven’t written much poetry before but the memoir poem appeals to you, take a course in poetry writing. And, of course, read lots of contemporary “confessional poetry” to get into the rhythm of this genre. Here are a few lines from For My Lover, Returning to His Wife, by 20th century poet Anne Sexton:

She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.

StoryCorps Project Records People’s Memoirs

StoryCorps Project Records People’s Memoirs
“I believe if you don’t tell your family history, or document it somehow, you lose it.” That’s the sentiment of one son who interviewed his father for the ongoing StoryCorps oral history project, as quoted in a Chicago Tribune article. Certainly here at Write My Memoirs, we agree with that!
The decade-old StoryCorps project records ordinary people being interviewed by a friend or relative about their life stories. Excerpts air Friday mornings on local radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5. Funded by nonprofit groups and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the project is open to everyone and has recorded more than 45,000 life stories, which are archived at the Library of Congress.
To open the project to as many people as possible, this month the Chicago Cultural Center opened a StoryCorps booth containing a desk, a few chairs, a pair of microphones and a box of tissues that, according to the Tribune report, gets used up quickly. A StoryCorps facilitator sits in on the hour-long interview session to work the audio equipment and ask an occasional clarifying question. Participants receive a free audio recording of their interviews on a CD.
“The idea of StoryCorps is that the act of people interviewing each other could change their lives, make their lives better and tell them that they matter,” StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told the Trib reporter. If you would like to make an appointment to participate, call 800-850-4406 or go to chicago.storycorps.org.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-0520-story-corps-20130519,0,3676901.story
http://storycorps.org/record-your-story/locations/chicago-il

“I believe if you don’t tell your family history, or document it somehow, you lose it.” That’s the sentiment of one son who interviewed his father for the ongoing StoryCorps oral history project, as quoted in a Chicago Tribune article. Certainly here at Write My Memoirs, we agree with that!

The decade-old StoryCorps project records ordinary people being interviewed by a friend or relative about their life stories. Excerpts air Friday mornings on local radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5. Funded by nonprofit groups and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the project is open to everyone and has recorded more than 45,000 life stories, which are archived at the Library of Congress.

To open the project to as many people as possible, this month the Chicago Cultural Center set up a StoryCorps booth containing a desk, a few chairs, a pair of microphones and a box of tissues that, according to the Tribune report, gets used up quickly. A StoryCorps facilitator sits in on the hour-long interview session to work the audio equipment and ask an occasional clarifying question. Participants receive a free audio recording of their interviews on a CD.

“The idea of StoryCorps is that the act of people interviewing each other could change their lives, make their lives better and tell them that they matter,” StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told the Trib reporter. If you would like to make an appointment to participate, call 800-850-4406 or go to chicago.storycorps.org.

Your Memoir Should Draw From Your “Emotional Truth”

You Memoir Should Draw From Your “Emotional Truth”
Author Diana Raab observes that writing a powerful memoir is more about connecting—and connecting the reader—with your feelings and outlook on life than it is about coming up with tantalizing stories. Reach deeply into yourself, and the power will unfold.
“The most compelling memoirists reveal a deep emotional truth about their lives,” Raab told the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs in an interview promoting a memoir-writing workshop she’s leading this summer at the first annual 2013 Summer Writing Institute of Antioch University, Santa Barbara, California. “I urge my students to ‘get down to their emotional truth.’ Sometimes this is not easy to do, but once the flow begins, it is a very gratifying experience.” The author of two published autobiographical books—Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey—Rabb told the interviewer that a memoir offers a snapshot of your life centered around a theme, which is distinguished from an autobiography, which tells the story of your entire life.
“Memoirs tend to be interesting to read,” she noted, “because our lives are the accumulation of stories—some tender and heartwarming, some frustrating, some boring, and others dark and destructive—all helping to build who we are.”
Scheduled for July 28-August 3 and limited to 10 students, Raab’s workshop will blend teaching techniques ranging from lecture and discussion to critique and writing exercises. If you’re interested, apply here by June 15. (Write My Memoirs is in no way associated with the workshop.)
http://greenheritagenews.com/the-essentials-of-memoir-writing-in-santa-barbara-summer-2013/
http://www.antiochsb.edu/swi/how-to-apply/
http://www.dianaraab.com/

Author Diana Raab observes that writing a powerful memoir is more about connecting—and connecting the reader—with your feelings and outlook on life than it is about coming up with tantalizing stories. Reach deeply into yourself, and the power will unfold.

“The most compelling memoirists reveal a deep emotional truth about their lives,” Raab told the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs in an interview promoting a memoir-writing workshop she’s leading this summer at the first annual 2013 Summer Writing Institute of Antioch University, Santa Barbara, California. “I urge my students to ‘get down to their emotional truth.’ Sometimes this is not easy to do, but once the flow begins, it is a very gratifying experience.” The author of two published autobiographical books—Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey—Rabb told the interviewer that a memoir offers a snapshot of your life centered around a theme, which is distinguished from an autobiography, which tells the story of your entire life.

“Memoirs tend to be interesting to read,” she noted, “because our lives are the accumulation of stories—some tender and heartwarming, some frustrating, some boring, and others dark and destructive—all helping to build who we are.”

Scheduled for July 28-August 3 and limited to 10 students, Raab’s workshop will blend teaching techniques ranging from lecture and discussion to critique and writing exercises. If you’re interested, apply here by June 15. (Write My Memoirs is in no way associated with the workshop.)

10 Fall Reading Suggestions

10 Fall Reading Suggestions
When you’re not writing your memoir, many of you are avid readers. Our local reviewer, Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune, recommends five fiction and five nonfiction books coming out this fall. Enjoy!
Fiction: 1) The Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks, a “disturbing” portrait of a convicted sex offender. 2) The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, a 1950s story of a young boy’s dinners aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean. 3) The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, following a wealthy family in post-World War I Britain. 4) 11/22/63, by Stephen King, exploring what might have happened if someone had stopped Oswald from assassinating JFK. 5) Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, by Ann Beattie, an imaginative trek through the private thoughts of Pat Nixon during the 1960s-’70s.
Nonfiction: 1) The Other Walk: Essays, by Sven Birkerts, a collection of personal reflections on myriad topics. 2) Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer, a must for any fan of the reclusive Edward Gorey. 3) The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, by Adam Gopnik, exploring, and contributing to, the nation’s fixation on food. 4) Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie, a textured look at a player in pre-revolutionary Russia who has been regarded narrowly. 5) Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave, by Simon Goldhill, which channels Victorian times, when fans traveled to authors’ homes for inspiration.

When you’re not writing your memoir, many of you are avid readers. Our local reviewer, Julia Keller of The Chicago Tribune, recommends five fiction and five nonfiction books coming out this fall. Enjoy!

Fiction: 1) The Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks, a “disturbing” portrait of a convicted sex offender. 2) The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, a 1950s story of a young boy’s dinners aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean. 3) The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, following a wealthy family in post-World War I Britain. 4) 11/22/63, by Stephen King, exploring what might have happened if someone had stopped Oswald from assassinating JFK. 5) Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, by Ann Beattie, an imaginative trek through the private thoughts of Pat Nixon during the 1960s-’70s.

Nonfiction: 1) The Other Walk: Essays, by Sven Birkerts, a collection of personal reflections on myriad topics. 2) Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer, a must for any fan of the reclusive Edward Gorey. 3) The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, by Adam Gopnik, exploring, and contributing to, the nation’s fixation on food. 4) Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie, a textured look at a player in pre-revolutionary Russia who has been regarded narrowly. 5) Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave, by Simon Goldhill, which channels Victorian times, when fans traveled to authors’ homes for inspiration.