Memoir vs. Legacy Writing and Why You Might Want to Do Both 4

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

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4 thoughts on “Memoir vs. Legacy Writing and Why You Might Want to Do Both

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Thank you for clarifying this important difference Amber. I had not heard the specific term “legacy writing,” though I often talk and write about “creating a legacy of stories.” Sounds like legacy writing is another way of describing what I’ve referred to as “story albums.”

    The difference you point out is vital. Legions of people are interesting in writing simple stories for family, and talk of memoir, editors and other high end phrases scare many away. How sad! So thanks for helping to keep the door open for valuing simple stories.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Sharon, “story albums” is a perfect way to describe what I’m talking about. I think I’ll borrow that term from you for the future, if you don’t mind! 🙂 It’s so much simpler than “a collection of stories.”

      And I agree about keeping things simple. For many, publication is not the goal: sharing stories, is. It’s important to encourage everyone to write, no matter their level of writing “expertise.”

  • patsy ann taylor

    Thank you for explaining the difference between these two personal types of writing.
    I started working on my family’s genealogy years ago and included some of the less known anecdotes to make writing the family history more fun to read.
    Then memoir became part of my journaling. A way of letting future generations “know” their ancestor firsthand. Both of these writing projects make me happy whether I have an audience or not.