#1 Family History, Autobiography, or Memoir?

Are you headed for a family history, autobiography, or memoir? Because writing has an unnerving ability to silently turn east and leave you thinking you’re still heading north, having a destination in mind can be useful on the trip.

Family History

As the name implies, a family history has a broad scope and covers at least several generations. It explores the lives and interconnections of multiple relatives, as well as outsiders who were influential in the family members’ lives. As the author of the family history, you may not appear prominently: your primary role will be as historian rather than a main character.

A family history if usually intended only for the author’s immediate and extended family. Your story will probably be of less interest to outsiders unless you are famous or well-known.


An autobiography generally covers the author’s entire life—or at least his life so far—and is presented to the reader as a factual, chronological account. Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, for example, takes the reader from Martin’s childhood and early jobs to the beginning of his career and his professional success. He also discusses his family, including the deaths of his parents. An autobiography should present a coherent narrative to the reader, but the events the author describes aren’t necessarily related to each other.


In contrast, a memoir covers a distinct time in the author’s life, such as her time in law school or backpacking through Peru, or the years after a serious car wreck. Some titles, like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, helpfully identify the work as a memoir. A memoir lets the author focus on specific aspects of her life and, by implication, ignore others. The memoir author should go beyond a mere telling of experiences to show the reader how they reflect broader human issues. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, for example, which recounts the author’s life from early childhood through age 19, offers numerous examples and reflections on basic themes such as the restrictions imposed by social class hierarchy.

The distinctions among family history, autobiography, and memoir are not cast in stone, but keeping them in mind will help you to decide how you want to develop your story. Get in touch with me to get started.

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