Constance Hale, author of the must-have guide to language Sin and Syntax and the forthcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, sent this description of the difference between personal essay and memoir to everyone at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. I found it so insightful, I asked her if I could share with you:
“Personal essay is written in the first person about a contemporary situation and may include reporting. It may also include some memory or reflection on a personal experience, but that’s not the focus. I might write about my recent trip to Rome and send it to a travel magazine. I might write about my experience of racism in elementary school and how that influences my views on affirmative action–in light of, say, an upcoming Supreme Court case. I might write about coming home and seeing a pack of boys on the street and a few moments later hearing three gunshots and looking out the window and seeing them running in skew lines down the street and why neither Obama or Romney had the guts to take on the NRA after Aurora. The point is the contemporary context, and my experiences ideally serves to provide insight, or information that might shape the reader’s view. The essay includes subjectivity, opinion, and bias, but it lives in the realm of fact.
“A memoir is based on memory. It’s me, writing from the perspective of today, about things that happened long ago—the past refracted through the sensibility of the present. It might include some background research I’ve done, or even some reporting, as backfill so that I get whatever facts are in the piece right. I might write about my father taking us horseback riding in the desert outside of El Paso, and do some research about the ghost town out there, and the plants in that desert. I might write about an experience in Tuscany 30 years ago, and I might do some checking to get the names of towns right, or to get some details about that art museum in Livorno. But in either I’m mostly trying to get at an emotional truth. Memoir lives in the netherworld of memory, somewhere between fact and fiction.
“Some pieces could be considered either or both, like a Modern Love essay about a relationship that is over.”
Constance and other literary journalists will be be digging further into such distinctions at the East Meets West conference at UC Berkeley November 10, 2012.
While each of these forms of writing illuminates the life, work, and worldview of an individual, they are differentiated by the degree of objectivity and factual content, as well stylistic approaches and perspectives.
Note: The below definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary [electronic resource.]
Autobiography, n. –
Typically in book form, an autobiography is an account of a person’s life told by the himself or herself. An autobiography tends to be a more general history, while a memoir focuses on a specific piece of the author's life.
Biography, n. –
A biography is a written account (although it may come in other forms such as recorded or visual media) of events and circumstances of another person’s life. Most commonly written about a historical or public figure, it profiles a person’s life or life’s work.
Diary, n. –
A daily record of personal matters, transactions or events affecting the writer personally or the result of the author’s observations.
Journal, adj. AND n. –
Often referring to a more detailed account than that of a diary, a journal contains events or matters of personal interest, kept for one’s own use. Either in the form of daily accounts or entries for when events occur.
Memoir, n. –
A record of events or history from the personal knowledge, experience, perspective or special source information of the author. Frequently include autobiographic reminiscences. Memoirs tend to cover in detail a specific aspect of an author's life, while an autobiography is a more general history.
Narrative, n. –
Such an essay tells a story about a personal experience. This writing form is interested with language, character development, description, etc. to illustrate the story being conveyed and the purpose of narrating it.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Expository, n. –
This is a genre of essay that requires the author to research an idea, make original observations and present an argument based on evidence in a clear and concise manner.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Oral history, n. –
A story or collection of stories or past events that have been passed down by word of mouth. Sometimes including record oral histories, this form of history relies on compiling recollections from people who were told these histories or whom lived these stories.
Conducting Oral Histories with Veterans
In recent years, publishers have avoided classifying life stories as “autobiographies”, with the attendant expectation of editorial fact-checking. By using a classification such as “memoir” or “personal essay” or “narrative”, a number of works later determined to be mostly or entirely fictional have been initially presented as nonfiction (e.g. A Thousand Little Pieces by James Frey). As when evaluating other research materials, it is important to consider whether the author is objective and complete in his or her writing.
In addition, only a biographer writing after the subject’s death is able to relate the events surrounding the death and the post-death consensus as to the individual’s significance.
Nonetheless, the personal narrative, even if subjective or incomplete, may add to one’s understanding of the individual’s values and viewpoint.
For briefer articles on individuals, try the biographies contained in print and online reference works, including:
Below are some library resources on interpreting the various forms of life writing.
- Jolly, Margaretta. Encyclopedia of life writing [electronic resource] : autobiographical and biographical forms. London : Fitzroy Dearborn/Routledge, 2001. [Credo Reference]
- Wolfreys, Julian. Critical keywords in literary and cultural theory. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. [PN44.5.W64 2004]
- Cuddon, J.A. ; Preston, C.E.. (rev.) A dictionary of literary terms and literary theory. Malden, Mass. : Blackwell, 1998. [REF PN41 .C83 1998]
- Turco, Lewis. The book of literary terms : the genres of fiction, drama, nonfiction, literary criticism, and scholarship. Hanover, NH : University Press of New England, c1999. [PN44.5.T87 1999]
- Spengemann, William C. The forms of autobiography : episodes in the history of a literary genre. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1980. [CT25.S63 1980]
- Memories are made of this - and that