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Personal Essay vs Memoir

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.

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