Memoir or personal essay?

Making distinctions can be vexing in creative nonfiction.

Silverman-Pat Boone Fan Club

[Stealth memoir: subject reveals self.]

When I first started teaching essay writing I was a reflexive splitter or at least a classifier. In practice this means one who strains to distinguish between a personal essay and a memoir essay. Of course, the memoir is a personal essay. But for students, I felt compelled to distinguish between them in the way Sue Silverman does in “The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction.”

As Silverman says, “Instead of the memoirist’s thorough examination of self, soul, or psyche, the personal essayist usually explores one facet of the self within a larger social context.” Drawing such distinctions in the varied nonfiction genre can be important for teachers, depending on the class, and especially for college freshmen. Teachers had better be clear about what they want. As an editor, too, I sometimes find that pinning down an essay’s lineage can be helpful. For instance, the personal essayist does employ a persona—and who is telling the story and why is important—but she or he isn’t the main point. Whereas in memoir, s/he is.

But drawing such distinctions can also be crazy-making.

In theory I love the personal essay that focuses more on the Bigger Topic—as in The New Yorker’s essayistic reportage or in Leslie Jamison’s hot new collection The Empathy Exams. But in practice, when I buy books I favor memoirs or memoiristic essay collections. Editors of literary journals say they want more personal essays, but like everyone else they end up wanting also to know more about the writer.

Maybe partly because I was an “objective” journalist for so long, and felt my writerly hands were tied, I am drawn to memoir as a reader and writer. And also because I spent seven years writing a memoir and spinning off from it, as adaptations or outtakes, mostly memoiristic essays. Recently I enjoyed Sue Silverman’s stealth memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, about her lifelong obsession with Pat Boone. I find thrilling the way her life is refracted through the odd prism of Mr. Boone.

Two flash essays, one memoir & one personal

Grace Paley

[Grace Paley.]

Grace Paley’s “Mother” feels perfect as a flash essay of only 420 words—a memoir flash essay. Though like Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” it was published it as a short story, in The Collected Stories, it is sometimes taught as nonfiction because it feels so autobiographical and hews to her known biography. Of course, if it were dragged out we’d want to know more about the writer—in that family crucible and “now, as she makes sense and reflects—but its perfection is that it isn’t dragged out.

What a beautiful little story/essay. As Dylan sang, “Behind everything beautiful there’s been some kind of pain.” But an artist who can use her pain, as Paley seems to have done here, has made something more of it: art. Its echo of “Then she died” is heartbreaking and also a precise instrument of revelation: the perfect, stunned, everlasting reality of grief. Her mother is gone forever except in the writer’s endless loop of guilt and memory. Maybe all the writer can do is accept her loss, whether she can or not. But that mystery underscores how much she’s doing by implication—Verlyn Klinkenborg makes a key point in A Few Short Sentences About Writing (reviewed) about how powerful implication is. But it’s also a little essay that moves readers all around in time, and plays with time, as it also shifts persona from then to now.

Frazier-Great Plains

I share my admiration for “Mother” with another concise gem, Ian Frazer’s flash essay “Crazy Horse”—361 words spun-off from Great Plains into a personal essay. I have heard great things about that book and now want to read it just to see how or if he develops his persona. Who is this amusing guy, so passionate about a Native American tragic hero? “Crazy Horse” is stamped with something that seems to typify more the personal essay than the memoir: it is told very much from the writer’s “now”; we don’t see him as a little boy, at least here, with prints of plains Indians pinned to his bedroom wall. Or whatever.

An essay collection on the memoiristic end of the scale that I love and have taught several times is Such a Life, by Lee Martin (reviewed). He writes about himself as a kid, as a troubled teen, and as an adult. He grew up on a poor southern Illinois farm, in a suburb of Chicago, and then back in farm country but living in a hick town—with a father maimed and rageful from a farming accident. Lee got—and often provoked—the brunt of his wrath. As a novelist, he is a master at writing in scenes, but in their midst he’ll step in from the present to reflect, giving his essay two voices, experiences, and perspectives. It’s richly layered.

Recently I binged on a favorite personal essayist, David Sedaris, reading two of his collections after listening on CD to him read one of them. He is so funny and strikes such a great balance between self and topic. Some of his essays are very memoiristic, but many are topical—recountings of his experiences and observations—made interesting by his quirky persona and hilarious responses and odd behavior. I would love to emulate the way he uses his sensibility, much in the way poets do, to write his way through life. Everything is material. The past and the present are interwoven. Like Frazier’s essay, his main stance is in the writer’s now, regaling us. He asks for our laughter at his past self, not pity, and his own eyes are amused unto mocking.

James Baldwin

[Baldwin: good luck classifying his great essay.]

For my money—and back to the classification dilemma—the greatest American essay is “Notes of a Native Son,” by James Baldwin (discussed on this blog before), title essay of his book by that name. For one thing, it deals with American’s greatest topic, race. And it portrays race and, more to the point, racism, vividly in Baldwin’s lived experience. It’s also a mesmerizing portrait of his seemingly immortal but suddenly dead father, an Old Testament prophet of a preacher warped by racism. And Baldwin now sees that the old man—“ingrown, like a toenail”—has passed his burden onto him but without a clue how to prevent his bitterness from becoming Baldwin’s.

I’m not the only teacher driven half mad trying to decide whether to tell students “Notes of a Native Son” is a personal essay or a memoir. Well, it’s both. Or neither. Artists, or at least works of art, transcend classification. Which is why I like Rachel Howard’s generous and forgiving lumping for an online class I’m taking this summer through Stanford: “We will define the personal essay broadly, as any shorter piece of nonfiction writing that investigates personal experience in order to arrive at new insight.”

Article courtesy of Richard Gilbert.  His is a writer, a freelance developmental editor, and a teacher. He has taught memoir and personal essay writing, freshman and advanced composition, media and feature writing, and nature writing at Indiana University, Ohio University, and Otterbein University. Currently he teaches essay writing and literary studies at Radford University, and beginning and intermediate memoir workshops in Virginia Tech’s Lifelong Learning Institute.  Read more about Richard and his writing at

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