Life Stories

The other day I was excited to hear that Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a memoir this fall, and told my friend Brian about it. “What?!” Brian yelped. “Already? He’s only 40!” I was a little surprised by this reaction – NPH has been in every corner of showbiz, from TV to film to internet series to Broadway. I’m certainly interested in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his fascinating and creative life.

But Brian’s response got me thinking about the genre of memoir itself, and whether there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography. For some readers, autobiography and memoir may be synonymous terms for any story of a life that is written by its liver. For others of us, autobiography is based on chronology, while memoir focuses on a theme, experience, or period. For example, Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles is a hilarious and moving account of his upbringing and early career, peppered with anecdotes about his best friends Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson – yes, that Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. I think of this as autobiography because of the linear narrative. In contrast, Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi is both a Hollywood gossip-fest and a moving account of struggling with an eating disorder. And Cheryl Strayed’s Wild relates the months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which turned into a powerful way to process and grieve her mother’s death. The latter two might not tell a full story of their authors’ lives – and those authors might not have as prominent a place in history – but they are still worth reading for their candor and introspection.

Whether you call it autobiography or memoir, many readers can’t resist the lure of a true story well-told. Keeping the nuances in mind might help you as you structure your own personal story or refine your narrative non-fiction projects.  (But I will tell Brain to cut NPH some slack considering that Justin Bieber has published TWO memoirs. At the age of 20, he’s not even old enough to enjoy a writerly glass of whiskey while he writes his third!)

Do you distinguish between autobiography and memoir? Whose yet-to-be-written memoir would you be most excited to read? What true stories do you recommend?




6 Responses to Life Stories

  1. Katie Newingham says:

    1. Anything by Maria Shriver.
    2. Dasani from NYT’s article (memoir on childhood homelessness).
    3. Divorce memoirs from child’s perspective.

    • sharon says:

      Good news, Katie, you’ll get your wish on #2 at least! I believe the book was already in the works when the NYT piece was published. And yes, it was so fantastic.

      Very intriguing suggestion on #3. Do you mean written by the child at the time, or an adult writer who successfully manages to recapture that viewpoint?

      Which brings up another interesting aspect of memoir/autobiography that I didn’t let myself dive into – the unreliable narrator! How much can we trust the first-person view? Maybe it’s always impossible to tell a story about yourself objectively, but a child’s perspective starts out even more limited and/or skewed.


  2. Katie Newingham says:


    That’s fantastic news – that girl sticks with me.

    As far as divorce memoirs from the child’s perspective, a longitudinal story would be best, but impossible, I think. But snapshots from an adults limited memory of being a child, showing their response to the information they were receiving, versus what they were thinking, and showing how their perspective changed over time with more information and maturity. It would be interesting to know how they approach relationships differently based on their experiences. A young adult might be able to do this best, though maturity may be a factor – possibly an old soul with a unique voice and perspective?

  3. Joelle says:

    I do distinguish between them, I think. Memoir seems to be about a specific portion of a life and includes reflection whereas a biography, while highly entertaining, is more of a history of a life. But I doubt that’s an academic distinction…just how I think of it. I like them both.

    When Kenneth Brannagh wrote his biography at thirty and someone asked him how he could do it so young he said, “For the money.”

    “At the age of 20, he’s not even old enough to enjoy a writerly glass of whiskey while he writes his third!”

    Of course he can drink whiskey! He’s a Canadian, eh? We break out the bottle at 19 up here. :-)

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