BlogTalk: Personal Essay and Memoir–What’s the Difference? 11

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?


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11 thoughts on “BlogTalk: Personal Essay and Memoir–What’s the Difference?

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Amber, I love that limb you went out on. I came very close to articulating that conclusion myself, but somehow stopped a bit short. We are in agreement that compelling stories and memoirs have elements of essay, thus there is no difference. Thank you for connecting the final dots.

    I look forward to other thoughts on the matter.

  • Jim Signorelli

    Thanks for your article. I do however think there is a big difference.
    Personal essays typically tell the reader how one thinks or feels. Stories, on the other hand, leave it up to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. Personal essays provide facts about what happened. Stories bring us into the writer’s experience to help us identify with what happened. Consequently, and generally, stories are more subject to interpretation. Your examples are story/essay blends, but there are story and essay components that differ in their effects.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Jim, thanks for joining the discussion. I agree with you when we’re talking about fiction, or fiction-like narrative. In my post, I had narrowed it down to memoir and personal essay, which are much closer in function/feel. There are differences, but because both memoir and personal essay show and tell (fiction only shows), it’s harder to define. Yet, I think you’ve “hit the nail on the head” when you say they differ in their effects. Perhaps that’s the real test. Maybe I should be asking, How are the effects of memoir different than personal essay?

  • Barbara Toboni

    Good topic, Amber. I love your metaphor of the old married couple. I think in a personal essay the writer proposes an idea or describes an attitude at the very beginning and throughout the piece gives examples in his personal life to clarify its meaning. In a memoir the writer uses an event and in telling the story of that event finds it changed him somehow. I also like the point that Jim, above, made about effect. As far as effects, the memoir lets you know how events in his life changed who he or she is. Essay, no change, just clarification.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Hi Barbara, the type of essay you describe (stating a thesis and then proving it) is academic, not personal. In my experience, personal essays often start out with a scene or event and always show some shift in the narrator, however slight. I think that’s why memoir and essay resemble each other. And I think (Jim, correct me if I’m wrong) that Jim was talking about the effects of a piece on the reader, not the narrator. But perhaps it’s both.

      I do think there are differences between essay and memoir, but the differences are often difficult for writers to agree upon. I love the discussion, though, and the way every writer approaches the subject from his or her own experience.

  • Terry Claytor

    I have written several essays on my blog, and each of them contained dialogues from conversations that I remembered , in reference to what I was writing about. However, I want to write about my first experience with eating chestnuts. I got inspired from watching my grandfather eat them during the holiday season. I was his copy cat: what he ate I ate or either tasted. So how can I write a memoir about this experience if I can’t remember any conversations between me and my grandfather? Do you have any suggestions?

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Many memoirs are written with a minimum of dialogue for this reason. One way to get around the memory limitation is to create a dialogue of the imagination based on what you know of the person. The important thing is to let your readers know that this is what you are doing. So, for example, you could start with something like: “Though my memory of our conversation is too hazy to be accurate, I can imagine my grandfather saying …” This is a mechanism that allows you to create a dialogue, while acknowledging that it is made up. Of course, you can always simply relay the event using other concrete details about your grandfather instead of dialogue, such as his mannerisms and expressions, the way he smiled at you, the way he ate the chestnuts.

  • Susan Bono

    Like you, I have found no substantive difference between what some call personal essay and others call memoir, but the debate continues. No one label seems to stick for too long. There was a time when we talked about someone’s memoirs, but that seems hilariously old-fashioned now. I believe we dropped the “s” around the time it became acceptable for people other than celebrities to tell their stories. I like “personal narrative” as an umbrella term, but whatever name I call it, I find myself having to define it–unlike fiction, which gets divided by length and subject matter.
    Thanks for the lovely analysis and the engaging comments by your other readers.