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?