A confused student recently asked me about the difference between legacy writing and memoir. “Aren’t they pretty much the same thing?” she wanted to know. “Aren’t they both just writing about life?”
“Well, yes and no,” I said. Not the clearcut answer she probably wanted.
Yes, they are both forms of life-writing, and no, they are not the same thing, though they are related, just as journaling is related to personal essay. They contain some of the same elements, but have different purposes and expectations.
Intended Audience: Legacy writing is for a specific audience, a child or grandchild, family and friends closest to you. It’s about wanting to pass on your personal stories, history, and wisdom to those you love. Memoir, while it may accomplish the passing on of stories, history, and wisdom, is intended for a broader audience. And while memoir can certainly also be a legacy, legacy writing is not the same as writing a book-length memoir.
Form: Both memoir and legacy writing may use a variety of forms, from epistolary to lists to fully developed stories using dialogue and description. A memoir is usually theme-focused, has a narrative arc, and contains both story and reflection. A reader of memoir should come away with a sense of the growth of the author during the times and experiences described. Legacy writing may be a letter written to accompany a will, or it may consist of a collection of letters, essays, stories, photographs and drawings that are autobiographical in nature and do not necessarily focus on a theme. Although legacy writing may contain expository and scene-based writing like memoir, legacy is about what we wish to be known about us and memoir about what we wish to know. Legacy is an inheritance we leave; memoir is a literary exploration of the past.
Expected level of polish: Because legacy writing is not usually published in the traditional sense (though it may be published in small ways for immediate family), you don’t need to hire an editor or proofreader. The level of writing is not expected to be professional. On the other hand, if you hope to publish a memoir, your writing should be at a professional level. This doesn’t mean that legacy writing is only for amateurs or hobbyists, only that it’s a less formal and more intimate form of life-writing.
So why might you want to write both? For all the reasons the two kinds of writing are different: to leave a more intimate sense of yourself with a loved one and to explore your past in a way that resonates with a broader audience; to create a collage of bits and pieces of your life and to weave the threads together into a larger whole; to create a picture of a whole life and to provide a view of just one part of it; to not have to polish your writing and to accept the challenge of making it better.
One of the things I love about writing about and through life is its inherent flexibility and sense of play. Sure, you can’t make up events — not if you’re writing about your life as nonfiction — but you can experiment with how you form a bowl or vase from the clay of it. You can roll your stories and reflections into long pieces and weave them together, or you can throw a whole lump on a spinning wheel and form it whole.
The choice is always up to you.
Photo by Oryctes via Compfight cc