There are many similarities in autobiographies and memoirs, and often only the most refined reader can tell the difference between the two. Whether you were assigned the book for a class or you picked it up at the local library because it looked interesting, knowing the difference between autobiography and memoir can enhance your understanding of the text.
If you are reading the entire life story of the author until he or she wrote the book, you are probably reading an autobiography. The writing in these texts tends to be a bit dry, or less interesting, because so much time has to be covered from start to finish.
Because it deals with one specific problem that is usually within the author's recent memory, the writing style in memoirs tends to be more literary and creative, making it easier to read.
Obviously, autobiographies and memoirs are nonfiction texts written by the author about specific events in his or her life. The biggest similarity is that the texts are all true. Many authors write autobiographical fiction, which means that the story itself is not true but is based on events that happened in his or her life.
While this can be similar to autobiographies or memoirs, the fact that the latter are absolutely true in the eyes of the storyteller sets them apart. Both memoirs and autobiographies can also be very interesting to read, considering the events actually happened. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, reading nonfiction can entice many readers.
The differences between autobiographies and memoirs, then, are subtle. As stated above, autobiographies often cover a longer time period and, as such, are sometimes more difficult to read. If you are very interested in the history of someone's life, you may want to pick up that person's autobiography.
If you are more interested in how someone dealt with a specific situation - maybe one you are facing in your own life - a memoir on the subject may be for you. In the same vein, memoirs often tackle tough subjects and don't necessarily have to be written by someone who is already well known.
Deciding Which One to Write
If you are an aspiring nonfiction author and are thinking about writing about your life, deciding between writing an autobiography and a memoir can be difficult. The first thing to do is to think about the story you want to tell.
If you want to tell the story of your entire life, go with an autobiography. If you can look at your life and pinpoint a situation you went through and you feel strongly that you'd like to share that experience with the world, go with a memoir.
From a sales perspective, memoirs are more likely to sell, especially if you are not a well-known celebrity. Celebrities can write successful autobiographies because people want to read their perspective, so they will generally sell well. Memoirs, however, apply to everyone who has been through a similar situation, making them easier to market.