Lisa Dale Norton is an author and memoir editor. She works on manuscripts with writing clients and teaches at conferences nationwide.

Memoir, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction—How Are They Different?

February 1, 2019
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Here we are in February, the time of year when we throw ourselves back into writing the story of our life. The end of the year, with its deepening dark and circle of celebrations, distracts. But now, we begin again, clawing our way through the relentlessness of the information cycle to a quiet rhythm of shaping words, and asking fundamental questions: What is a memoir? How is it different from biography, and how are both related to that thing called narrative nonfiction?           

Here’s my take on it:

Memoir is a story based on your life experience and what you have learned from it.

It is a winnowing of all that has happened into a tight view of a slim section of experience: the coming of age years; the head-spinning start of a career; early motherhood. But always, it is a winnowing of the vast, complicated arc of events that has constituted your life. Narrow, narrow, narrow. Find one series of events that linked together explores some vulnerable and pressing universality of life.

Biography is all about you, too—and all is the correct word. This is where you get to write about where you were born, and what went on during your young years, leaving home, setting out to make your way in the world, love, relationship, work, loss—the whole canvas.

See how biography is different from memoir?

Of course, we hope a biography will show us mistakes made and lessons learned—the vicissitudes that brought a woman to be who she is, pimples and all. We hope for some readers’ transformation as we witness the arc of that person’s life, but this is different from the expectations of the reader of memoir.

 The reader of memoir dives in for the short version, the lens of the camera zooming in to show the close up of just the years from 6 to 18, or just that summer your husband died, or just the college years that led to a Rhodes Scholarship, or just the years when you, through sheer fortitude, worked your way out of poverty, of just those events that came together to make you the vocal activist you are today. Slim focus. And from that slim focus a nugget of wisdom.

 Narrative nonfiction is a similar but slightly different beast.

This is a form where you might write about yourself and your experience a good deal, but you will also be teaching us something about the world. Maybe it’s the world of a dwindling tribe of the last subsistence whalers in the world (“The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark, recently published by Little, Brown and Company), so that the story ends up being about the writer’s experience getting the story, and about the nonfiction information itself.

We could say narrative nonfiction is the wedding of journalism and memoir, and while you may not be a journalist, you can do the same thing with your story by finding a topic that is central to your manuscript and making it an equal and parallel part of the story you write about yourself. Here’s a book where a writer did just that: “Don’t Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip” (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which combined author Richard Ratay’s personal experiences with road trips, and the history of the American road trip from post-WWII to the 1970s.

See what I mean?

If you take the time to peruse the shelves of current nonfiction in your local book shop, you will see a lot of nonfiction with the author as player in the story. Why? Because we are a culture obsessed with the personal, the “I” of everything. Neither good nor bad, just ‘tis. And so, many contemporary nonfiction books give us the writer as a character and that character’s experience. But, they also give us information: the biologist who writes about his early days in the Galapagos, and Charles Darwin; the violinist who writes about becoming first chair of an orchestra, and the violin; the dog lover who writes about her dogs, and the industry of dog shows—two parallel stories that dip into and weave around each other giving us something fresh.

The name narrative nonfiction tells you everything you need to know: narrative, which means a story, and nonfiction, which refers to a topic from our world.

Can you find your project in this spectrum? Doing so now in February will make your writing year more productive, and make you more savvy about the marketplace.

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton

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