What is the Difference Between Autobiography and Memoir?

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In the following video, Pamela Smith Hill discusses the differences between Autobiography and Memoir:

  1. Both are written in first person.
  2. In both, the narrator is the protagonist and uses personal pronouns

dark-world0This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs







Under My Skin by Doris Lessing




 Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

“A word of warning here. The events as you remember them will never be the same in your memory once you have turned them into a memoir. For years I have worried that if I turn all of my life into literature, I won’t have any real life left – just stories about it. And it is a realistic concern: it does happen like that. I am no longer sure I remember how it felt to be twenty and living in Spain after my parents died; my book about it stands now between me and my memories. When I try to think about that time, what comes to mind most readily is what I wrote.”
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

“One last characteristic of the memoir that is important to recognize is one which also applies to essays, and which Georg Lukacs described as “the process of judging.” This may seem problematic to some, since…we connect it with ‘judgmental,’ often used nowadays as a derogatory word. But the kind of judgment necessary to the good personal essay, or to the memoir, is not that nasty tendency to oversimplify and dismiss other people out of hand but rather the willingness to form and express complex opinions, both positive and negative.

If the charm of memoir is that we, the readers, see the author struggling to understand her past, then we must also see the author trying out opinions she may later shoot down, only to try out others as she takes a position about the meaning of her story. The memoirist need not necessarily know what she thinks about her subject but she must be trying to find out; she may never arrive at a definitive verdict, but she must be willing to share her intellectual and emotional quest for answers. Without this attempt to make a judgment, the voice lacks interest, the stories, becalmed in the doldrums of neutrality, become neither fiction nor memoir, and the reader loses respect for the writer who claims the privilege of being the hero in her own story without meeting her responsibility to pursue meaning. Self revelation without analysis or understanding becomes merely an embarrassment to both reader and writer.”
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

“Susan Griffin describes it as a time when “there is no intrinsic authority to my words.” “I…clean off my desk. I make telephone calls. I know I am avoiding the typewriter. I know that in my mind, where there might be words, there is simply a blankness. I may try to write and then my words bore me.” But when the time is right, the waiting will have been worth it. “Because each time I write, each time the authentic words break through, I am changed. The older order that I was collapses and dies. I lose control. I do not know exactly what words will appear on the page. I follow language. I follow the sound of the words, and I am surprised and transformed by what I record.” Excerpt from “Thoughts on Writing: A Diary,” in The Writer on her Work.”
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Second Edit

“Whether or not you employ humor in dealing with difficult subjects, the tone of the writing is of the utmost importance. Personally, I can read about almost any subject if I feel a basic trust in, and respect for, the writer. The voice must have authority. But more than that, I must know that the writer is all right. If she describes a suicide attempt or a babysitter’s cruelty to her, or a time of acute loneliness, I need to feel that the writer, not the character who survived the experience, is in control of telling the story….The tone of such pieces may be serious, ironic, angry, sad, or almost anything except whiny. There must be no hidden plea for help – no subtle seeking of sympathy. The writer must have done her work, made her peace with the facts, and be telling the story for the story’s sake. Although the writing may incidentally turn out to be another step in her recovery, that must not be her visible motivation: literary writing is not therapy. Her first allegiance must be to the telling of the story and I, as the reader, must feel that I’m in the hands of a competent writer who needs nothing from me except my attention.”
― Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Second Edit














“Lillian Hellman’s PENTIMENTO, A loose collection of autobiographical essays and stories, has been both controversial and famous, and very specifically so for “Julia.” In this particular tale, Hellman describes her attempt to aid a friend by smuggling money to support anti-Nazi efforts in 1930s Germany–and subsequently finding herself unable to protect Julia from the ferocity of the Nazi machine. Powerfully written, it is the centerpiece of the book, and in 1977 was adapted into a very popular and much-praised film starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

It was at this point, however, that controversy arose. The film caught the attention of Muriel Gardner, who promptly asserted that she was ‘Julia’ and the story itself was significantly based on her own life and work in pre-World War II Germany. She also stated that she had never met Lillian Hellman–but it transpired that she and Hellman had at one time shared the same attorney, who was well aware of her past and who could have described it to Hellman.

Hellman flatly stated that Gardner was not ‘Julia’ and insisted that the story, while altered re details and circumstances to protect the identities of those involved, was indeed factual. As more details of Gardner’s life came to light, however, it seemed increasingly likely that Hellman had indeed made use of it in creating the story, and the dispute continues to provoke strong feelings even some thirty years after the deaths of both Hellman and Gardner.

It was not the first time Hellman had been accused of literary fraud and it would not be last. During her long love affair with novelist Dashiell Hammett, Hellman was frequently accused of draining his ideas to further her own work. In 1979 writer and critic Mary McCarthy prompted a suit for slander when she described Hellman’s work by saying “every word she writes is a lie, and that includes ‘and’ and ‘the!'” But regardless of how Hellman came by her ideas, there is no getting around the fact that she had the gift: at her best, she was the equal of the best of the best, turning out several masterpiece dramas and three autobiographical works that jolted best seller lists from end of the country to the other.

PENTIMENTO is the second of these autobiographies, published in 1973 between the equally famous UNFINISHED WOMAN (1969) and SCOUNDREL TIME (1976.) And although “Julia” remains the most famous–or perhaps most infamous–work in the collection, Hellman is actually at her finest in the other stories she tells, most particularly those that center on her childhood home of New Orleans.

In both these writings and others, Hellman shows a remarkable gift for capturing place, time, and character, zeroing in on her New Orleans family, her lover Hammett, and the legendary Tallulah Bankhead to name but a few. From the lunacy of personalizing condoms in Hollywood to the drunken jitters of opening night on Broadway, Hellman makes you see it, feel it, touch it, taste it. It is a brilliant accomplishment–and if you suspect that the stories on which she hangs these talents are at best misrecalled, at worst deliberate falsifications–is this not, after all, what we demand that writers do? Recast reality in order to spin a good story? Strongly recommended.” – Amazon


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