View Full Version : Personal Essays: Memoir, or Something Else?

Mystic Blossom
10-17-2007, 11:51 PM
I'm taking a class this semester that basically focuses on personal essays and memoirs, and every time we have a workshop, I'm noticing a lot of pieces are blurring the line between memoir and essay more and more. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards the essay portion of it, because I feel like I have more to talk about when I'm not just ranting about the weird things my family does. The longer I'm in this class, the more I'm falling in love with the idea of creative nonfiction and I was wondering what everyone's opinion is on the subject of personal essays acting as a form of memoir.

10-17-2007, 11:59 PM
Define Creative Nonfiction for me.

Then differentiate personal essays from memoirs. Please.

Now I'm even more confused than before.

10-18-2007, 12:14 AM
Define Creative Nonfiction for me.

Then differentiate personal essays from memoirs. Please.

Now I'm even more confused than before.

me too.

Mystic Blossom
10-18-2007, 12:15 AM
Well, to me, creative nonfiction is any form of nonfiction meant to entertain, not just to inform. But I might be completely wrong. This is just the definition I've gathered.

I have a book called, "The Art of the Personal Essay" which is basically an anthology of personal essays, and a lot of them contain a recollection of the author's life combined with their own opinions, sometimes researched, sometimes just rants. I'm not sure if you're asking how I'd differentiate them, but personally, I'd say there's a very fine line.

10-18-2007, 12:28 AM
If I understand your question correctly, I'd say a personal essay IS a memoir, or vice versa. (I think??) My memoir has a combinations of stories, which could be considered essays, and reflection. Not sure if it'll work in the end but that's where I'm at right now.

Not sure if i answered the question.

Mystic Blossom
10-18-2007, 12:30 AM
It's a pretty vague question, sorry. I'm mostly just wondering what people's opinions are.

10-18-2007, 02:44 AM
Some of the professional or "real" memoir writers write about their life the way they would write a novel:

Tobias Wolff, "This Boy's Life," Alice Sebold "Lucky" and Tracy Kidder's "My Detachment" have hardly any opinion in them. So they aren't essays.

I'm trying to think of a memoir that is mostly an essay. Maybe Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking." She shares a lot of her personal process. I wish I could think of one that was really an essay, but then if it gets too far away from the story, it wouldn't be a memoir anymore.

You're just looking for conversation, right? I won't be graded on this?


10-18-2007, 02:47 AM
Yes, what Jerry said. :)

Mystic Blossom
10-18-2007, 03:33 AM
Yeah, lol, just conversation. I actually read "The Year of Magical Thinking" for my class. I really liked it. We also read "Assasination Vacation," which is a lot like a novel-length essay because it contains personal elements but mostly focuses on Sarah Vowell's studies of history.

10-18-2007, 11:02 PM
Oh, I loved Assassination Vacation! She reminds me a bit of David Sedaris, which I don't think is accidental.

For me, the difference between memoir and essay, other than length, is that essays riff on a particular theme--either by themselves, or when strung together--whereas memoir is more like a "what happened next" thing.

Essay can encompass memoir, but it has more of an opinion or a theme to it; it has a purpose other than to say "what happened to me." It includes the reaction, almost from an observer's point of view, as well as the event. At least, that's how I see it.

10-18-2007, 11:04 PM
So that would mean I'm writing more of an essay. Interesting...

10-27-2007, 06:15 PM
Sorry I'm a little late arriving for this discussion. I teach courses in writing memoir and lifestory, and I teach ordinary people to write about their own lives. I strongly urge them not to get bollixed up worrying about form. "JUST WRITE! Something, anything, anyway, anyhow," I urge them. "Your grandchildren are not going to assign you a grade!"

However, some still clamor for answers, so, a few years ago, I invested considerable time in researching the difference between essays and stories (for now I'll leave the various story forms, i.e. lifestory, memoir, autobiography, lumped together). I summarized my conclusion in a blog post (http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com/2006/09/moving-beyond-senseless-writing.html) in September, 2006:

. . . Stories involve action and/or interaction. Something happens. Stories have a plot. Essays are expressions of thoughts, ideas and insights. They may include a certain amount of action, but plot isn’t a critical element. Essays interject meaning into experiences. Both of these writing forms have a place in lifestory writing.

In my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0979299802?tag=theheaandcrao-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0979299802&adid=0DBEECM5HVMJW041S0PC&), I put a slightly different spin on the distinction:

. . . The primary difference between essay and memoir is purpose or focus. In memoir, the focus is on specific experiences. Interpretation is a means of making sense of experience. In personal essay, the focus is on the interpretation, and experience gives substance to the interpretation. In a nutshell, if you are simply describing things that happened to you, that’s lifestory. If you add material about what the experiences meant to you, you are moving into memoir. If you write about how you think or feel about a topic, and add descriptions of your experience to explain your views, that’s essay.

My call: If you are taking an academic course, or writing for a literary journal, these differences matter. If you are writing for a specific market, let their guidelines dictate your form. If you are writing from your heart, to touch other hearts, entertain, or inform, let your heart determine your form.

If you want more specific and technical information about creative nonfiction in general, pay a visit to the website (http://www.creativenonfiction.org/) of The Creative Nonfiction Foundation, inspired or founded by Lee Gutkind, who unblushingly proclaims himself "The Father of Creative NonFiction." If you are taking an academic course, or writing for a literary journal, these differences matter.

Don Allen
10-27-2007, 06:36 PM
It's funny you started this thread because for the longest time I have been struggling with my book as to whether it should be a memoir or not. I went with a novel but have been more or less regretting my decision since. For one thing it seems much harder to get published or even noticed, but mostly it has been bothering me a lot that although 95% of what I wrote is dead on accurate, it's going to be looked upon as a made up story. I went this way because I was petrified of getting something wrong or getting sued because I didn't get a permission from someone. I know this dosen't exactly address your title but I thought it was close enough to vent a little. Since most of us write about things that we have experianced in one way o0r another I 'am really beginning to see the problem that you address.

10-28-2007, 03:05 PM

Last year Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss, gave the keynote address at a creative nonfiction conference I attended at the University of Pittsburgh. She first wrote this story of her incestuous relationship with her father, as a consenting adult, in fiction form. It sold like wild fire, but critics constantly claimed "This isn't fiction. It's memoir!" She wrote another book or two, then couldn't move forward with her writing until she revisited the initial story. Her editor gasped, paused, and finally approved the project.

During her program, she read corresponding sections from each book. The differences were subtle, but significant. There was actually less detail in the "true" book.

When the memoir was published, critics reversed their stand. "This isn't memoir -- it's fiction!"

What irony.

Few of us will ever have her clout as a top-selling author to make our own decison about telling a story both ways. Perhaps you can go the James Frey route and shop it as a novel first, then a memoir if it doesn't fly. How important is it to you that your experience be validated as "real?"

10-28-2007, 07:04 PM
I read that - it was disturbing but written in such a way that I couldn't put it down. Thanks for the backstory.