Sharon Lippincott’s recent post, “What’s the Difference Between an Essay and a Story?” brings up an important topic for creative nonfiction writers. I’ve had many discussions (friendly arguments) about the distinction between the two forms.
According to Lippincott, Story and Essay are two ends of a spectrum. She says, “We use Story to make sense of life and the world we live in … Story, specifically life story, generally focuses more on experiences and events as such,” while, “… I see essay as a useful term for describing writing that focuses primarily on values, attitudes, beliefs, stories about what and how we think. At the other end, those compositions we generally think of as stories tend to focus more on action and experience — what happened.”
I agree with her assessment when thinking about formal, expository types of essays. Yet, when I consider personal essays, the distinction is not as clear cut. Essays—I’m writing about personal essays—are often built on “what happened.” Essay and Memoir, for example, both use Story to make sense of life. And both Essay and Memoir show some kind of transformation or movement for the narrator.
I’m thinking about Maya Angelou’s famous essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which starts in scene, a story of what happened on a particular day in Angelou’s childhood. This scene, incomplete by itself, is the launching pad for the rest of the essay, which (mostly) summarizes Angelou’s experience of what it was like to grow up in the South, and then ends with one, final, heart wrenching scene of three “powhitetrash” girls mocking her grandmother and of her grandmother’s stoic response. The essay is both a Memoir (Story) and Essay (reflection, theme, values, attitudes, and opinions).
Where, here, is the difference between Memoir and Essay?
E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” recounts a father’s experience of taking his own son to the same lake he visited every summer as a child. It is a mix of summary and scene, including the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. It is Memoir, a “what happened” Story, and yet it is also Essay because it manages to communicate the themes of life cycles, youth, aging, and fear of death. The Memoir/Essay assigns universal meaning to a life experience.
Where, here is the difference between Memoir and Essay?
In Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, he writes: “At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.” He also writes that the personal essay has a “preference for a conversational approach”—another aspect of Story.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as far as I’m concerned, there is no substantive difference between a nonfiction story (a memoir) and a personal essay; the two are like an old, married couple who has a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. And yet, close as they are, I want to be able to recognize which is which.
What do you think is the core difference between short Memoir/Story and Personal Essay? Or is this one of life’s unanswerable mysteries?