Memoir, or Autobiography?

Ask four people the difference between a memoir and an autobiography and odds are you’ll get four different answers. For Gore Vidal a memoir is “how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history.” Will Rogers put it this way, “Memoir means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do.” Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian, boils the difference down to that between telling (autobiography) and showing (memoir).

Nor do dictionaries shed much light on the matter. According to the Oxford English, an autobiography is “the writing of one’s own history; the story of one’s life written by himself,” while a memoir is “a person’s written account of incidents in his own life, the persons whom he has known, and the transactions or movements in which he has been concerned; an autobiographical record.”

For me the difference is mainly one of audience and intention. Autobiographies are penned by the famous or infamous for an audience interested to hear their life stories; memoirs are written by the relatively obscure or by those who have merely brushed up against fame, with the intent of treating a specific broader theme or issue with which the author is intimately and by personal experience acquainted, but which is not purely personal.

Which is a long way of saying that a memoir is about something other than the life of its author. If you’re Dolly Parton or Bono, you write your autobiography. If you’re somebody like me, and feel so inclined, you write a memoir.

Memoirist Nora Gallagher sums up more succinctly still the secret to writing good memoirs. “It’s not about you.” When, in Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy writes about losing half her jaw to cancer and the ramifications of being permanently disfigured, she’s not merely talking of her own personal ordeal; she speaks to any and all of us who’ve ever been self-conscious of our looks or suffered rejection or endured physical torment and pain, or who’ve been torn between who we are, and what we wish to be—in her case, someone with a whole face and not one torn in two by cancer. Singularly horrible though her experience may be, still, there’s much in it that we can all relate to. And it’s the relatable part that is her book’s true and worthy subject.

The first page here is from the memoir of a pilot. The most famous example of the genre (if it can be called that) is Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Saint-Exupery. Here is how Saint-Exupery opens his memoir:

In 1926 I was enrolled as a student airline pilot by the Lactécoère Company, the predecessors of Aéropostale (now Air France) in the operation of the line between Toulouse, in southwestern France, and Dakar, in French West Africa. I was learning the craft, undergoing an apprenticeship served by all young pilots before they were allowed to carry the mails. We took ships up on trial spins, made meek little hops between Toulouse and Perpignan, and had dreary lessons in meteorology in the freezing hangar. We lived in fear of the mountains of Spain, over which we had yet to fly, and in awe of our elders.

Note how quickly the focus here switches from the narrator to his fellow pilots in the aggregate (“It’s not about you.”). From this opening paragraph on Saint-Exupery’s book will of course be about him, but it will mostly be about pilots, flying, the mail service, the poetry of land as seen from the air . . .

By contrast, judging by its opening paragraph, the memoir being considered here, though quite well-written, is strictly personal. And that’s the problem. The author has put his best foot forward, so he thinks, and its an autobiographical foot. It begs the question: what’s in it for the reader? Why should a perfect stranger care that so-and-so was offered a job at TWA—a company that doesn’t even exist anymore? How relatable is that?

From there the narrator treats us to the intricacies of the probationary period —but this, too, is treated not historically, or even nostalgically (by way of saying how things were different back then), but personally: this is what happened in my case, to me, at my airline. Fascinating? Yes, assuming that the reader has a personal reason to be fascinated—if she happens to have known the author, for instance. Otherwise, in spite of the good prose, I’m afraid this won’t fly.

But solutions may be at hand. One might be to follow Saint-Exupery’s example and switch the focus to the aggregate over the individual, to make this a memoir about flying for the airlines back then—not one man’s story, but the story of an industry in its relatively glamorous days.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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5 Responses to Memoir, or Autobiography?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the quick work. I don’t mind getting thrown under the bus for a chance to learn. I’m a creative writing grad student (as well as a career pilot) and workshopping with feedback is the norm–constructive, critical, and honest in any form (rhyme unintended). Your Autobiography/Memoir lesson was a good overview. I’m with you, I definitely want to end up in the memoir category. I’m not famous and I intend for my story to focus on experiencing the airline industry and not so much on me, except that it’s from my perspective.

    My opening page originally served for the chapter as a stand-alone magazine article. As you’ve pointed out, it now needs to represent my entire memoir. So, some deep thought and revision is in order. Yes, best to go through this process here and now rather than with an agent. The overall structure is one I have been wrestling with all year, and getting it right on the first page is a good place to start.

    Looking forward to your readers advice as well as I chew on this and re-write.

  2. Peter Selgin says:

    Thanks for this—I certainly pulled no punches, but I hope you know that my praise of your style/prose was no less sincere. And really for you the solution is most likely a matter of just re-orienting your opening—or choosing to start with something different and letting this scene come later in the book. The other thing to consider is whether the memoir points toward any specific event or episode in your career as a pilot. Right now it looks like “My career as a pilot”–and there might indeed be a more specific and interesting sub-theme or theme than just that—even a spiritual or emotional or metaphoric one: the meaning (for you—but also relatable to the readers) of flight itself, or a personal conquest (how a young man overcame obstacles of ignorance, poverty, etc. to become a pilot). Along those lines you might want to read Homer Hickham’s memoir October Sky, about a young man’s bumpy journey from dying mining town to becoming a NASA space engineer.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks again Peter.

    Quick question. If a book has an introduction before Chapter 1, do you consider the first page of the intro or the first chapter to be the true first page?

    After your reflection on my first page I felt I needed to do one of three things: (1) rewrite the first page to reflect my entire memoir rather that first chapter, (2) Write an introduction to reflect the whole memoir before Chapter 1, or (3) write a new first chapter to go before my existing Chapter 1.


  4. Peter Selgin says:

    Whether you call it Chapter One or prologue, it’s still how your book begins (unless you really mean an “introduction”, which is normally an added feature than can be skipped over). Ideally, do without a prologue (or “intro” as you call it) and go right into the story in a way that’s compelling but that also sets the proper context for what follows.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I thought if your piece is supposed to reflect how much you cared about being a pilot, then your opening, or this section, should also include why you were so excited to get this job in the first place. Instead of giving more background about your desire to be a pilot, you immediately switch to how hard it is to keep the job. If you give the reader some idea of the importance of it to you, it will create more tension for the reader in that they will care about you keeping the job more.

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