Although both memoirs and autobiographies tell stories about the author's lives, the time the story covers makes them distinctive genres. Memoirs focus on a specific period or event, such as an illness, hobby or relationship. Autobiographies, often written by famous people such as politicians and celebrities, cover the entire scope of the author's life or career. In spite of these differences, the two genres have many elements of style and purpose in common, including focus, honesty and the use of narrative devices.
Just like fiction, authors write memoirs or autobiographies with the intention of communicating the significance of their experiences. Literary agent Barbara Doyen writes that a memoir usually involves personal reflection about how the author has changed or what lesson he learned. In "The Glass Castle," Jeannette Walls demonstrates how growing up in poverty gave her determination. While an autobiography may not focus as explicitly on theme, its significance can often come from the insight it adds into well-known figures. Comedienne Tina Fey's autobiography "Bossy Pants" shows insight into Fey's humorous attitude from childhood to the present day.
Both memoirs and autobiographies require authors to be honest with themselves about their experiences. The University of Vermont states that personal writing "demands vulnerability" and that authors shouldn't shy away from it. Without the author confronting the emotional truth of an experience, his readers will have a hard time understanding its significance. Even though being vulnerable may be uncomfortable for many writers, both genres require them to be honest about their personal growth throughout a particular experience or the scope of their lives. Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called It" gives a painfully honest portrayal of his experiences with child abuse.
Use of Narrative Devices
The University of Vermont adds that both memoirs and autobiographies use narrative elements to tell the story. Just as fiction uses memorable characters, settings, plot and dialogue, memoirs and autobiographies weave actual events together with devices that bring the story to life for readers. The major players in the experience become characters, the place where it happens becomes vivid and real and dialogue reveals relationships between the author and the people he encounters. Eli Wiesel's classic memoir "Night" vividly describes the starkness and horror of a concentration camp, putting the reader in his position of fighting for survival.
Show, Don't Tell
Autobiographies and memoirs both follow the rule of showing vs. telling -- making sure your language is clear and specific instead of vague. Authors of these genres don't simply tell readers what happened -- they use as much sensory detail as possible to evoke the same feelings in readers that they felt during the actual experiences. Danielle Trussoni's memoir "Falling Through the Earth" clearly evokes her simultaneous love and frustration with her father, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, by re-creating their relationship through dialogue and description.