While each of these forms of writing illuminates the life, work, and worldview of an individual, they are differentiated by the degree of objectivity and factual content, as well stylistic approaches and perspectives.
Note: The below definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary [electronic resource.]
Autobiography, n. –
Typically in book form, an autobiography is an account of a person’s life told by the himself or herself. An autobiography tends to be a more general history, while a memoir focuses on a specific piece of the author's life.
Biography, n. –
A biography is a written account (although it may come in other forms such as recorded or visual media) of events and circumstances of another person’s life. Most commonly written about a historical or public figure, it profiles a person’s life or life’s work.
Diary, n. –
A daily record of personal matters, transactions or events affecting the writer personally or the result of the author’s observations.
Journal, adj. AND n. –
Often referring to a more detailed account than that of a diary, a journal contains events or matters of personal interest, kept for one’s own use. Either in the form of daily accounts or entries for when events occur.
Memoir, n. –
A record of events or history from the personal knowledge, experience, perspective or special source information of the author. Frequently include autobiographic reminiscences. Memoirs tend to cover in detail a specific aspect of an author's life, while an autobiography is a more general history.
Narrative, n. –
Such an essay tells a story about a personal experience. This writing form is interested with language, character development, description, etc. to illustrate the story being conveyed and the purpose of narrating it.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Expository, n. –
This is a genre of essay that requires the author to research an idea, make original observations and present an argument based on evidence in a clear and concise manner.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Oral history, n. –
A story or collection of stories or past events that have been passed down by word of mouth. Sometimes including record oral histories, this form of history relies on compiling recollections from people who were told these histories or whom lived these stories.
Conducting Oral Histories with Veterans
In recent years, publishers have avoided classifying life stories as “autobiographies”, with the attendant expectation of editorial fact-checking. By using a classification such as “memoir” or “personal essay” or “narrative”, a number of works later determined to be mostly or entirely fictional have been initially presented as nonfiction (e.g. A Thousand Little Pieces by James Frey). As when evaluating other research materials, it is important to consider whether the author is objective and complete in his or her writing.
In addition, only a biographer writing after the subject’s death is able to relate the events surrounding the death and the post-death consensus as to the individual’s significance.
Nonetheless, the personal narrative, even if subjective or incomplete, may add to one’s understanding of the individual’s values and viewpoint.
For briefer articles on individuals, try the biographies contained in print and online reference works, including:
Below are some library resources on interpreting the various forms of life writing.
- Jolly, Margaretta. Encyclopedia of life writing [electronic resource] : autobiographical and biographical forms. London : Fitzroy Dearborn/Routledge, 2001. [Credo Reference]
- Wolfreys, Julian. Critical keywords in literary and cultural theory. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. [PN44.5.W64 2004]
- Cuddon, J.A. ; Preston, C.E.. (rev.) A dictionary of literary terms and literary theory. Malden, Mass. : Blackwell, 1998. [REF PN41 .C83 1998]
- Turco, Lewis. The book of literary terms : the genres of fiction, drama, nonfiction, literary criticism, and scholarship. Hanover, NH : University Press of New England, c1999. [PN44.5.T87 1999]
- Spengemann, William C. The forms of autobiography : episodes in the history of a literary genre. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1980. [CT25.S63 1980]
- Memories are made of this - and that
It’s rather simple, but people do get them confused. After you examine them, you’ll want to write a memoir. Because it’s the most dramatic tale, and so the most entertaining.
Memoir: A story written with the word I. As the author, you are the hero, the protagonist of this story. Everything that happens in it relates to you, and we should see that relationship. However, great memoirs are often about things other than the author. Out of Africa is about a coffee farm in Africa. My Life in France by Julia Child is as much about the character of postwar France and living the life of a US State Department employee’s bride, plus the rigors of publishing a first book. A memoir doesn’t contain everything that happened in your life—only selected events that relate to your theme. A theme like, “Even when you discover who they really are, how can you save your loved ones?”
Autobiography: A story all about you, but with everything that’s interesting included, in chronological order. Drama is important because we hear this tale in the voice of the I. But accuracy is even more important. Roger Ebert wrote a great book, My Life, before he died. But it was hailed as a memoir because not all the connecting pieces of Ebert’s life are in the book. They do all contribute to his theme, but it all had to be true. Autobiographies often appear as stories of the lives of celebrities, but are often ghost-written. We’re led to believe it’s the voice of the subject talking to us, but the ghosts are channeling that voice.
Biography: A complete examination and telling of the life of someone who is not the author. Covers all significant events of the person’s life, not just those related to a theme. Think reporting, with verve and style, at its best. The voice of the writer emerges here, just like in the last two forms. But at no point does the reader live the events in a biography as if they were their own. Not even an autobiography can do that — because it’s basically a self-biography.
Here’s some good news. Memoir demands drama, the very thing that drives people to read fiction. But a memoirist — or as I like to call them, memoiristas, because their writing should become daring — they work with what they’ve experienced or see first-hand. Not only what they remember exactly, however. Everything that anyone writes becomes a form of fiction as soon as you put it onto the page, or your laptop screen. It’s your story. Just because all the details are not there in a way you could prove doesn’t mean you cannot start. You begin with a disclaimer that your story will contain changes to character names, compressed events, even a warning that what you’ll read doesn’t portray actual events.
It’s this greater truth that a memoir is after, the understanding that leads to wisdom and the resounding bell of connection — that’s what drives us to read memoirs. Here’s the boxed disclaimer in front of the memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs.
This memoir is based on my experiences over a 10-year period. Names have been changed, character combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.
That, dear writer, is license that a biographer, or even an autobiographer, cannot enjoy. So write the bigger truth of the story.