Memoir or Autobiography?
“The past is a foreign country.” So said L P Hartley, the author of The Go Between.
When it comes to people’s recollections however, it may be more true to say that the past is several foreign countries, because what we each remember with absolute certainty is quite often different from how others who were there remember it. To check this out, ask your siblings or parents about a family event from your childhood, and see if they remember the details in the same way you have.
To get an accurate picture of events from the past, historians like to listen to the accounts of people who were there. But then they have to check these against the records. And bear in mind that documents from the time can also be accidentally (and sometimes deliberately) misleading. History, after all, is usually written from the perspective of the winning side.
The same scope for inaccuracy applies when it comes to writing an autobiography. However honest the writer tries to be there can be discrepancies between what they think happened and what actually happened. And the temptation to cast oneself in a slightly more noble – or heroic – light has to be resisted. So, if it is hard for a biographer to get to the truth, how much harder must it be for an autobiographer to apply the necessary detached rigour? Much safer, perhaps to write your memoirs instead, which allows for a more personalised version of events.
Salmon Rushdie has drawn an important distinction between writing a memoir or an autobiography.
“Memoir is there primarily to tell us a particular story, whereas autobiography tries to be a full account of a life.”
That is to say, there is a bit more wriggle room with a memoir!
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