how autobiography can still be called memoir

History-Favors-the-Rule-Breakers-Even-in-BusinessI’m usually not a rule breaker. But, full disclosure: my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, reflects a rule, a memoir is not an autobiography, that I broke.

Though Under the Birch Tree is now memoir, it maintains characteristics of autobiography. How I handled this telltale suggestion tipped the category from autobiography to memoir.

The leap from a chronological autobiography to a memoir  took years of self-study, reading best-selling books about memoir writing, reading memoirs, and listening to webinars and podcasts. I managed copious rewrites and allowed my years of reflecting on my story to work for me. I became so immersed in learning all I could about the craft and the genre that my intellectual understanding was at capacity. I didn’t know how to apply what I understood to my writing. I talk about this further here. there once was an autobiography . . .

x4thblvdkicks-jpg-pagespeed-ic-ccvycxw7nfStatements about my feelings such as apathy when my parents divorced or relieved yet scared when I was fired from my first job, were prevalent throughout  my autobiographical drafts. But all the chronological events and my subsequent feelings still did not a memoir make. I wrote about my events. I wrote about my feelings. And then I asked who cares.

All I knew was I had to tell my story in chronology from the beginning, through the following three decades, in order to weave a theme I believed was there but needed to be filtered out.

Finally, a developmental editor’s questions prompted me to respond like a memoir writer should think. Simply stating that I connected with my mother did not dig deep enough. My reflections on the ways I connected and why they were important pushed the narrative over to memoir. Reflections and takeaways, the backbone of memoir structure, soon followed.

Though a few characteristics of autobiography are discernible in my memoir—my birth through the following three decades, starting my story from where I grew up, chronicling school years and jobs—I used these events to weave my theme and to make it memoir. So how did I do it?

The following five tips can help to turn your  autobiography into memoir:

  1. If your memoir needs to start with the earlier years of your life, start with a strong scene. To set the beginning of your story apart from autobiography, start with a scene where you pull the reader in, one that will tug at the reader’s heart, something to set the story in motion. In my memoir’s first chapter, I am a young girl who befriends a birch tree in her front yard. I then show something happening under that tree that sets the story in motion.
  2. Place autobiographical information such as geographical locations, year, season, time of day, in the context of a scene.  Turn an autobiographical timeline of  information into compelling scenes, drawing your reader exactly where and when you want them to be. Just don’t simply state the information, weave the orientation into scenes.
  3. Tell of life events, but make them turning points. An autobiography is a chronology with life events and experiences. Mention these, but not all of them. But only mention them if they have a purpose and a place as you answer why it’s included in your story. If you mention your experience or life happening just for the purpose of telling your reader, delete it. Include only your turning points.
  4. Record your times of change, but string them to weave your theme thread. Unlike autobiography, a memoir’s backbone of reflections and takeaways gives support to your theme. By using your times of change as building blocks and scene-making you provide the cloth to weave your theme through. Answer why you are including the scene, then immerse the reader in it by using all your available senses of sight, sound, taste and touch to take the reader away from autobiography.
  5. Lastly, create compelling scenes from your turning points.“They’re like little hooks, and they’re the foundation of any memoir,” said Brooke Warner, publisher,  She Writes Press. “Turning points turn into scenes; scenes turn into a collection of scenes; and those collections of scenes, woven together with narration, turn into chapters. Simply put, this is how you build a memoir: by stringing together a series of turning points.” Scene description is crucial, putting the reader in your shoes so as to be standing in the action as you are writing about.

By definition, one could say a memoir is a slice of life. As you will find some slices of life are about a tragedy, drama, a life-altering experience, a one-of-a-kind happening that needs to be shared.

Perhaps your memoir isn’t a slice of life, but many slices to make up almost a whole pie.

You can be a rule breaker and have a whole pie, changing your autobiographical elements into a structure of memoir, by considering my six tips.

Do you have an autobiography but wish it to be memoir? What difficulties are you having?


Under the Birch Tree, a memoir of discovering connections and finding home is due out June 19.

One thought on “how autobiography can still be called memoir

  1. Very interesting post, thank you for sharing this. I am looking forward to reading your memoir.

    I also worry that the memoir I’m writing may become an autobiography. My earliest memory is of a 6.9 earthquake in northern California where I was born, more than sixty years ago. I was not quite two when it happened. Even after all these years, I can close my eyes and relive it all over again.

    . . . I wake up in my crib and the world is shaking. Tin cans, glass jars, and dishes topple off the shelves in the kitchen alcove a few feet above my head. Framed pictures swing, slam, and slide down the walls. A lamp dances across a tabletop and crashes to the floor. I hear a woman scream outside the apartment, and a man yells “It’s an earthquake!” From somewhere beyond the shadowy darkness at the foot of my crib, in an adjacent room behind a closed door, I hear my mother’s terrified voice and my dad’s guttural, anxious reply.

    I am afraid. I want someone to pick me up and hold me, but no one comes. The wooden slats on the sides of my crib rattle and bang just inches away from my face. The mattress I am lying on bucks, rears, twists, and rolls in every direction.

    And then everything stops. My first memory ends in silence, stillness, an uneasy, bewildering peace.

    No lives were lost in our town during the quake that I know of, and relatively little property damage was done. But this first memory of being left completely alone, out of sight and apparently out of mind, during a brief but powerful earthquake, seemed to set the tone for the rest of my childhood.

    Growing Up Crazy is my working title — because that’s what I did! But my life is beautiful today. I can appreciate the good times all the more, because I know what life at the bottom of the happiness meter is like. 😀


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