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The difference between an autobiography and a memoir

By Roz Weedman

When definitions are too general, concepts remain fuzzy. For example, if you look up a basic definition of a memoir you might find, “a collection of one person’s memories” while that same source might define an autobiography as “the story of a person’s life written by that person.” And that’s why I never let college students start out with dictionary definitions. Instead, we need the literary people to step in and explain these concepts.

They tell us that an autobiography is the chronology of a person’s whole life, hitting all the highlights. But a memoir cherry picks highlights to focus on one especially important part of the author’s life. It is more focused and underscores some transformation in the person’s life. But no definitions are complete without examples, so let’s take a look at a few memoirs so well regarded that they have become classic.

Elie Wiesel published Night in 1958, in French, two years later in English. Chances are excellent that if you’re reading this, you read Night. Wiesel’s memoir cherry picks childhood memories about being a devout and observant Jew on his way to a likely future as a rabbi. The scenes of how meaningful this was in his life are detailed and moving. However, Hitler intervenes and Wiesel winds up in the camps. He details unimaginable inhumanity and cruelty of one part of mankind toward another and, even in writing, it’s excruciating. We know that he spent the rest of his life working against fascism anywhere as a result. The title, though, is everything. What was the most important thing he lost when searching for meaning? The metaphor of night represented his loss of hope and faith.

Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. She creates for the reader her childhood of rape and violence that literally silences her for many years. Out of these experiences, though, emerges one of America’s most brilliant poets, feminists, and intellectuals. Some of you might have been in the same audience with me when Angelou came to read at Whiting Auditorium in Flint. Tickets were cheap and first come – none of this “pay more, get a better seat” thing. The auditorium was packed, and the anticipation was electric. Still, nothing prepared us for the moment she took the stage. The iconic poet stood at the lectern – and she began to sing. This child who couldn’t/wouldn’t speak was in front of an entire packed auditorium singing acapella. The metaphor of the caged bird came alive for everyone. Again, this is a short memoir that constantly rewards re-reading. (If you missed Angelou in Flint, I’m sorry. Her personal motor coach, though, was parked in Frankenmuth the next day. She wouldn’t travel on planes. I restrained myself from knocking on the door.)

Then there are those who write memoirs where misery abounds but nonetheless the author finds some hilarity in it. One of those is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, 1998. McCourt was raised in Limerick, Ireland, son a drunken father and a hard working mother of a big family. McCourt chooses his memories wisely for that combination of hilarious absurdity cheek to cheek with crushing poverty and “casual cruelty”. When he talks about the kids out begging for a hog’s head, so they’d have Christmas dinner, somehow it’s funny. And awful. At once. Our book club could hardly breathe laughing about the scene where communion goes hilariously awry. McCourt says, “All memoirs are about miserable childhoods including mine which was even more miserable because it was a miserable Irish childhood, made even more miserable because it was a miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Believe him.

By the way, Wikipedia calls Caged Bird an autobiography while it’s on many “memoir best of” lists. That just goes to show that none of these definitions can be 100% trusted (but neither can Wikipedia). However, I’m 100% sure that on the second floor of the library or somewhere in the library, there are many wonderful memoirs. (Double check with librarians because there’s been a lot of moving things around.) The best ones tell us a great deal about human nature and the ability to survive and thrive impossible situations. They explain. They inspire.

See you at the Library!

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