One of the most common questions that a personal historian receives is about memoirs, autobiographies, and vignettes. While they are all similar, there are distinct differences between the three and one may be better for you than another.
A common problem many people find is that they have a lot of stories about their life, but those stories don’t connect well. Essentially, they had a full life, but their life doesn’t have a particular theme.
A memoir is a snippet of a person’s life, and more specifically a short period of time. For example, you may want to write a memoir about your plebe year at the military academy or perhaps your first year raising a child.
While a memoir is a piece of your life, the length of a memoir is highly variable in size – from a few hundred words to 10,000-words or more. Size is irrelevant, but what is important is telling your amazing story.
When a memoir is right for you: Simply put, a memoir is right for everyone and is the most versatile of the three. A memoir can be published on its own or as a collection of memoirs.
An autobiography is a book of your entire life or the majority of your life. What separates an autobiography from a biography is that a biography is written by someone else about you, while an autobiography is written either by you or by you with a little help from a writer like myself. An autobiography is more complex than a memoir and often takes a year or more to complete.
What I find is that most people, while they’ve had an active life, find it difficult to document or recall the details which create a compelling read. This can be addressed through interviewing additional family, friends or acquaintances as well as newspaper articles, journals, and additional research.
When is an autobiography right for you? An autobiography is right for you when you have had many experiences throughout your life which have a similar theme or are progressive in nature. For example, a person who joins the Navy after high school and move up the chain of command to a Master Chief or Admiral. Or, perhaps someone who has struggled, or flourished, to maintain their fourth generation dairy farm.
A vignette is a brief evocative description or account of a time in your life. A vignette is likely shorter than your memoir – often 500 words or less – and used alongside other media such as photos and even traditional family recipes.
When is a vignette right for you? Much like a memoir, a vignette, fits most people. They are a unique way of presenting small snippets of your life, thoughts, and experiences. For vignettes, I like to pose questions that tackle your daily life throughout your entire life. So, while not following a similar theme as an autobiography would, we can tell your story in the “every day.” A vignette is great for a story-teller who has many short stories or ideas on their life. For example, “The Challenger explosion and how my second-grade teacher taught me empathy.”
While a memoir and autobiography can be written as their own book, vignettes are generally compiled with several vignettes and photos, recipes, or other documents to create a realistic life story.