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I just returned home from a writers group meeting. Tonight’s meeting was lighthearted and fun. Actually, many of them are, which is why I enjoy going.

At last month’s writers group meeting, a good question arose. We had several new faces in the group that night and one of the new attendees read a piece she had written about her neighbors. When she finished, she looked at the group and asked, “Would you consider this piece to be memoir or biography?” The reaction from the group was mixed. Two of us (me included) said biography. Most of the rest of the group said memoir. (There could have been some noncommitals in the group, but I didn’t catch that.)

This led me to wonder what the difference is between the two. Before I look for the answer online, let me reveal how I currently define the two and then I’ll see how I stack up against my research.

For me, biography (or autobiography) is a straight forward telling of events in a person’s life. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. While there may be some exposition on the larger meanings of a person’s life events, that isn’t the main focus of the story.

In my mind, memoir is all about the meaning. It’s about building an emotional framework upon which the events of the person’s life are draped, but not all of the person’s life events, only the salient ones that fit with the chosen framework. The framework gives shape to the events and further, it allows the reader to resonate more deeply with the story.

Biography is vicarious; memoir is empathic.

Here’s an example of a book I’m currently reading that I consider to be memoir: “The Wishing Year” by Noelle Oxenhandler. The book is autobiographical in the sense the Noelle is writing about her life, but it goes beyond the mere recitation of life events. She has structured her book around the idea of wishing. What does it mean to wish for something? How does one decide what to wish for? What’s the history of wishing? Etc., etc. Using this larger emotional framework, Noelle lays out the events of her life that coincide with wishing, and in so doing, causes the reader to think about how wishing has impacted his/her own life.

Those are my definitions of autobiography/biography and memoir. Be back in a moment. Time to see what others have to say about the difference between the two.

Okay, I’ve returned from my research.

Yahoo! Answers has several answers from readers concerning the difference. Atsuko_C says in part, “Memoirs focus around a particular aspect of a person’s life,” and “An autobiography … would be a broader and general account of [a person’s] life.”

Answerbag has a similar answer posted, although several of the commenters focus on the difference between biography and autobiography.

I thought this went without saying, but maybe it needs repeating. Biography is the story of a person written by someone else, whereas autobiography is a life story written by the person who lived it. Memoir is solely autobiographical.

Oh, goody! I just found a fabulous explanation of the difference between an autobiography/biography and a memoir and it was written by a literary agent – Agent Kristin of the Pub Rants blog. (A literary agent ought to know, right?) Her post: Writing A Memoir Is Not The Same As Writing “My Memoirs”.  Go have a look-see.

I was pretty close in my definitions, except that I wasn’t aware of the inclusion of story arc and crafted scenes in memoir, which are devices typically used in fiction.