Memoir and Personal Essay

Memoir and Personal Essay.

Speak, memory.
(Vladimir Nabokov).

Honeyed memories
Taste oh-so bittersweet when
You remember them.
(Memoir Haiku)

This section of the class is Creative Non-Fiction. It will span three weeks. There will be a number of writing exercises, but the final, graded assignment for this section will be a 5-page memoir, and it will be due––and workshopped––during class on Tuesday October 23rd.

During the previous section of the class we learned about writing poetry. Most of the topics relating to poetry are also appropriate to Memoir and Personal Essay, including: Denotation and Connotation
Stresses and Emphasis.
Metaphor and Simile,
Concrete Imagery, and

In fact a memoir can take the form of a poem, such as the Haiku above. In fact memoirs can be any length. They can be as short as a Haiku or book-length narratives such as Ellie Wiesel’s ‘Night.’

We will look at ‘Night’ later in the class, but for now this is me writing about Memoir.

I grew up as a sort of military brat. The Second World War cast a long shadow over my childhood.
The bookshelves in our home were filled with dull-looking volumes of war memoirs by generals, majors, and colonels, with long strings of letters after their names. I was excited by war movies, comics, and TV shows, but these books only seemed to provide details of terrain and military equipment, and lists of dates, events, officers who were present for the actions––and perhaps more importantly––officers who weren’t present. These books seemed only to serve as a reminder of what is apparently a truth a about war, in that it is supposed to be boring for 99 percent of the time, and lethally terrifying for the remaining one percent of the time.
So these books left me with a negative feeling about the idea of memoirs, that they were mainly the tedious accounts of extremely vain men, that were probably of interest only to themselves, and perhaps to their families.
I had never been in a war, or done anything exciting in my life. I had never done anything anyone could possibly want to read about. I could not be less qualified to write memoir.

This is sad, as memoir writing is probably the most valuable form of creative expression available to writers.
Someone once said, “…anybody who has survived a normal childhood has more than enough material for dozens of books…”

Memoir is the most forgiving literary form.

It is the most adaptable and flexible literary form. It can take almost any shape: ballad, list, collage, rondel, and best of all, the monologue (sometimes known as the ‘rant’ or ‘tirade’).
In fact memoir is so flexible that it’s easier to define what it isn’t.

Memoir is not the essay you had to write in high school––or for comp––that you didn’t want to write, but had to.

Memoir is not journalism.

Memoir is not an argument, or an attempt (in French: j’essai––I try) to persuade.

Memoir does not follow the formal essay pattern of thesis–topic–sentence-conclusion.

Memoir is not a mere presentation of the facts.

Memoir might be a written record of true experiences, but it goes deeper than that. It is an attempt to find meaning beyond or within those experiences.

A memoir can be an inward journey of discovery in which the research and remembering can lead to unexpected destinations.

To reference last week’s exercise on conceits: Memoir is not a subway ride.

Or is it.

I lived in New York for many years, and like most people I got around the town by subway.

Why Memoir is the F-train.

Memoir can take far longer than you think it’s going to.
You can spend the time crammed in with characters who look familiar, and yet you can’t always remember why.
Memoir can lead you to unexpected destinations.
Memoir can suddenly turn around and head off in the opposite direction.
Or it can take you far further than you intended to go.
Memoir can let you look out of the windows at neighborhoods you will never visit, sometimes because they look frightening, or maybe just because you have no reason to go there.
With memoir you can get involved with a book you’re researching, miss your stop, get off a few stops further on, then get off and catch another train going back.

Memoir is clearly supposed to be true, but even that aspect has some flexibility. In Margot’s Diary by SL Wisenberg, we have speculation of a diary that doesn’t exist.

In Ragnarok Boy by Michael Chabon we have a record of fantasy characters, and their effect on a boy who reads about them.

Memoir and Personal Essay:

Memoir and personal essay differ only in emphasis.
Memoirs are stories retrieved from personal memory with the author as protagonist––and they are usually, although not always written in first person.
The emphasis is on the story, and the ‘point,’ should emerge from the characters, settings, and scenes, rather than from the author’s reflections.
Personal essay is usually framed by memoir, but leads into a reflective exploration of the subject matter. The personal essay reveals why the author has a specific fascination with the subject matter, rather than writing about it because it is merely an assignment.
Both forms grow out of autobiographical experience, and it’s sometimes unclear whether one is reading a memoir or a personal essay.
Memoirs are often similar in length to short stories. Short stories are usually structured around a plot, and we read them to experience fear and pity as we follow the tribulations of the main character. We derive satisfaction from the story as we are vicariously redeemed at the end by the redemption of the main character. If the main character emerges at the end of the story from a great danger, then we feel the same relief and renewal that she feels.
If the main character finally finds true love, then we––for a moment––feel the joy of true love with him.
Memoir can also take us on a journey through great danger, or through rejection to love, but memoir is usually intended to make a point, and so, even though they often share much of the structure of stories (scenes, dialogue, suspense), they do not always need to.
One form of story that eschews plot is the ‘slice-of-life’ story, and this can be a useful form of memoir. Slice of life is popular in fiction as it has no redemption. We follow our main character from rejection, to rejection, to more rejection. There is no ‘happily ever after.’ It seems more like real life, especially to readers in their teens and twenties.
You could say that Slice-of-Life is fiction that mimics memoir, but it can also genuinely be memoir, and I think it often is.

For our first reading, here is Margot’s Diary by SL Wisenberg:





Writing Exercise:

Write about a time you felt put down by someone arrogant or bullying. Try to analyze why this particular person got to you. Connect to to your inner life.