I’m often asked to define and explain the differences among six terms in common usage for describing written accounts of personal history. This overview should answer any questions.
Autobiography — a chronological account documenting events of your life from birth through the present. Given the amount of material that is generally covered, these works tend to emphasize basic facts with relatively little reflection and insight.
Memoir — a narrative account of a specific, bounded aspect of your life. You can write many memoirs to emphasize different facets. Typical examples of memoir content include military service, career experience, surviving a hurricane, illness or various sorts of abuse, or perhaps your experiences with quilting, cooking or a favorite sport. Formal memoir is an integrated story using fiction techniques such as an ongoing plot (story line, story arc), scenes, dialog and more. Like autobiography, memoirs are typically book length and divided into chapters. Unlike autobiography, they incorporate insights, emotions, and other elements to emphasize a message in the included material and bring it to life for readers.
Life Story (lifestory) — short, self-contained stories about specific events and experiences. These stories focus on things you did or things that happened to you. They may be combined into anthologies or “story albums” for sharing with others, and they may be incorporated as scenes in memoir or autobiography. Language and structure of life stories may be more or less formal and polished, depending on your levels of interest and skill. These stories are a great way to ease into life writing.
Personal Essay — stories about your beliefs, values and opinions. In their purest form, personal essays focus on thoughts and feelings, life stories on actions and experiences. In reality, the line between them blurs, and the most compelling stories have elements of both. Distinctions between them are meaningless.
Journaling — spontaneous accounts of anything that comes to mind: events, thoughts, hopes, fears, the weather, rants and more. Journal writing is helpful for sorting things out and making sense of life, and purely spontaneous journaling has documented health benefits. You can write journals like letters to the future, intended as a legacy, but may lose some health benefits in the process.
Freewriting — similar to journaling, but usually destined for the wastebasket or fireplace. During sessions of freewriting, you write spontaneously, without thought of form, spelling, or other elements of shared writing. It’s useful for getting ideas onto paper where you can see them and further refine them for sharing with others or just making sense of them for yourself.
Based on levels of complexity, freewriting and journaling are the simplest forms, intended only for personal review, not sharing with others. They serve well to gather your thoughts before writing more material for others to read. Life stories and personal essays are the next rung on the ladder, presenting your thoughts and ideas in and orderly, logical flow. Autobiography and memoir are the most involved, drawing on elements of both lifestories and memoir.
Please understand you need not make a choice. Each form is a tool, and you can use all of them. Many people begin with life stories, then integrate those into an anthology and/or autobiography. After writing the overview, they may drill down to explore certain areas more deeply in a series of memoirs. But if all you do is write a few simple stories, that is a noble accomplishment.
Write now: Ponder these various forms of writing and explore ways each may help you achieve your life writing project goals.