posts found in this keyword

    Beyond the Book: Memoir vs. Autobiographical Novel

    Beyond the Book: Memoir vs. Autobiographical Novel

    As I’ve started to tell people about my book, I’ve had to wrestle with how to describe it or classify it. While it is a personal story, I have fictionalized scenes, characters, and dialogue, so it feels strange calling it a memoir. I describe it as an autobiographical novel On the book’s website, but how is that different from a memoir?

    Over the next few posts, I want to dive deeper into the differences between these genres, explain why I’ve chosen to call my book an autobiographical novel, and look at how using fiction impacted the truthfulness of my story.

    A note before we begin. Classifying books and stories can be difficult because genre definitions are a bit “squishy.” Sometimes genre is used as a marketing term, and sometimes it’s used to describe a story’s structure. Because of this, I created my own definitions for each term based on research I did for the book. So take them with a grain of salt, and let me know how you would classify these stories!

    What is Memoir?

    Memoirs are personal stories usually told from the present and focus on events that happened in the past. They often begin with the author’s early childhood and progress to some significant life event they have had to wrestle with. The author uses descriptive language to explore difficult emotions or circumstances, and the writing is more literary, almost poetic, in style.

    One of my favorite memoirs that I feel fits this description perfectly is Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew. If you are unfamiliar with Kate Mulgrew, she played Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager and, more recently, Red on Orange Is the New Black. I’m going to share my thoughts about her book in an upcoming post, but when if someone asked me for an example of a traditional memoir, this is the book I would point them to.

    Another example of this genre, which I am currently reading, is The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. After suffering a head injury that left her with amnesia, Contreras returns to Colombia, the country of her birth, to uncover her family’s magical and unusual past.

    Of course, another memoir that is close to my heart is Missing Mila, Finding Family by my mother, Margaret E. Ward. It tells the story of my adoption, reunion with my birth family from El Salvador, and reconstructs my family’s history through the country’s violent civil war.

    What is an autobiographical novel?

    A personal story that relies heavily on the techniques of fiction to tell an account that represents someone’s experience without being entirely factual. While it could be written from the present looking back on the past, it can also be written as if events unfolded in real-time.

    According to Wikipedia, two of the most famous books written in this style, at least in the United States, are On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It’s been a while since I’ve read either of these two books, but from what I remember and found online, they are both written in the first person like a memoir but use the techniques of fiction to bring the story to life.

    Some biographical examples of this type of storytelling are Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, which is “based on the true story of a forgotten [World War II] hero, Pino Lella,” and Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In both stories, the authors used facts about a real person to create a dramatized narrative about that person’s life.

    What’s the difference?

    To me, there are a few key differences between a memoir and an autobiographical novel: factual accuracy and narrative drive.

    1. Factual Accuracy. In my experience, a memoir tends to be a factual account of events. While an author might change names or alter the order of some events, these changes are done for privacy and clarity, not to enhance the story’s drama. By contrast, autobiographical novels use real-life events as the source material to tell a compelling narrative.
    2. Narrative Drive. This refers to the storytelling technique used to move the story forward. Memoirs rely on descriptive language and literary prose as narrative drive, whereas biographical novels use plot, dialogue, and character arcs. That’s not to say that memoirs don’t contain plot, dialogue, or character arcs, just that these storytelling techniques are not the primary force that moves the story forward.

    Maybe the best way to explain the differences between these two genres is by comparing them to a documentary film and a feature film that is “based on a true story.” Both are movies that use storytelling techniques, but one is supposed to be more factual while the other is understood to take some artistic liberties.

    In my next post, I’ll discuss why I’m calling my story an autobiographical novel and why I decided to write it in that style.

    posts found in this keyword



      Separated from my family during El Salvador's civil war, by death and adoption, I am an author, filmmaker, and technologist.