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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

Autobiography vs. Memoir: What’s the Difference?

I’m asked this question a lot and there are some key differences.


An autobiography is a comprehensive account of a person's entire life, from birth to the present day, usually in a chronological narrative. It’s not organized around a particular theme other than the person’s broad experiences.


A memoir, on the other hand, is about a particular aspect or period of a person’s life. While a memoir of alcoholism may cover a person’s entire life, it will frame that life through the theme of alcoholism. It won’t spend much time discussing people, events, or experiences not related to a life of drinking. 


If explored with enough depth and skill, such a theme can produce a compelling book. Memoirs in general tend to include more personal reflection, emotion, and psychological depth than autobiographies.


I say on my website that I’m adept at identifying “the diamond in the rough” in your life that will produce a first-rate book. By that I mean I’m skilled at identifying and developing the theme(s) in your life that can have a great impact on readers.


We tend to think that memoirs must include “big drama” in order to be good books. Some people have climbed Mt. Everest or survived Stage 4 cancer or achieved great wealth after arriving penniless in the U.S. The arc of such books is obvious; the question for the ghostwriter, then, is how to present it, in terms of writing and structure.


But most lives don’t have that kind of “big drama,” being made up of more subtle events, encounters, lessons, etc. My job as a ghostwriter is to identify those themes that form the patterns of your choices and behaviors.


I’m thinking of the memoir I worked on with Sam Sutton, who grew up poor and went on to become a Presidential Valet, serving Presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama. The memoir covered most of Sam's life but was shaped by several core themes: the joys and difficulties of serving others, the racial politics of serving in the military and White House, and the seemingly small encounters that he would always remember. 


There's a moment in Sam’s memoir when he passes someone in the hallway of the White House.


            One day in January 2002 I was walking back from the Oval Office when in the hallway I passed a black woman wearing a scarlet red pants suit. I hadn’t walked more than a few steps past her when I realized who it was.

            That’s Coretta Scott King!

            She was in Washington for the first celebration of the holiday honoring her husband and to present President Bush with a portrait of him.

            I turned back, introduced myself, and said it was an honor.

            Although I tried, I couldn’t say another word, and neither could she. She took my hands in hers, squeezing them, shaking them lightly, as if to say, “You’re going be okay.”


A good ghostwriter will help you discover such gems, to recreate on paper the mosaic of your life.



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