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Difference Between the Personal Essay and the Memoir

Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs

When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a “writer.” It now occurs to me that my father, who didn’t try to be a writer, was a more natural writer than I am, with my constant fiddling and fussing. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.

Thank you. I’m in the middle of writing the memoirs of my sister for the first time so this piece was a great help.

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One of my students in a memoir class was a woman who wanted to write about the house in Michigan where she grew up. Her mother had died, the house had been sold, and she and her father and her 10 sisters and brothers were about to meet at the house to dispose of its contents. Writing about that task, she thought, would help her to understand her childhood in that large Catholic family. I agreed—it was a perfect framework for a memoir—and I asked her how she was going to proceed.

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While the personal essay can be about almost anything, the memoir tends to discuss past events. Memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that the memoir tends to focus more on striking or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in your life right now.

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personal memoir essay - Template

Thanks for the helpful article. I’m wondering how much of your advice I can apply to my current project. I have been hired to write the story of a 95 year-old woman. I’ve been interviewing her once or twice a week for several months. Her children approached me to do this, but she is excited about it and looking forward to seeing the book. I guess it will be more of a biography than a memoir, but I want to include stories written as scenes, with details to keep it interesting.

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She said she was going to start by interviewing her father and all her brothers and sisters to find out how they remembered the house. I asked her if the story she wanted to write was their story. No, she said, it was her story. In that case, I said, interviewing all those siblings would be an almost complete waste of her time and energy. Only then did she begin to glimpse the proper shape of her story and to prepare her mind for confronting the house and its memories. I saved her hundreds of hours of interviewing and transcribing and trying to fit what she transcribed into her memoir, where it didn’t belong. Remember: it’s your story. You only need to interview family members who have a unique insight into a family situation, or an anecdote that unlocks a puzzle you were unable to solve.

but not all autobiographical writing follows the criteria for memoir

Hey Faith. Yes, go for the sliver method. I started working with a memoir writer today and once we narrowed the focus to overarching theme, it was much easier to find the slivers that fit that theme. Good luck! Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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Thank you Shannon for your sage advice. I’ve been working on my memoirs in essay form for about 10 years now with the help of my writer’s group. I appreciate what you say about creating a story with arc and viewing the people in the memoir as characters. In addition, I’m grateful for the recommendation of picking one time period (“a sliver of pie”) rather than doing a chronology of everything. Now I realize that I have 3 distinct events that happened in my life to shape me and I look forward to gearing my memoirs towards that goal. Your advice opened my eyes to the possibilities…