Personal narrative vs memoir

This goes out to my writing students who scratch their head over my presumptuous ass throwing “personal narrative” and “memoir” around like they should automatically know the differences.

In my understanding, personal narrative is using your life’s story to illume some larger issue: mental health, intersectional, feminism, racism, nature, border walls.

It’s Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays; Richard Rodriguez Days of Obligation: Arguments with my Mexican Father; Meghan Daum The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion; and more recently, Morgan Jerkin’s This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America and The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú.

Personal narratives are fond of subtitles. The subtitle is in fact more important than the person telling the story.

Memoir, meanwhile, is more internal. Its aim, as Herodotus said, is to “look diligently at my own mind.”

If this analysis can be of interest or beneficial to others, great–but that’s not the prime motive; the prime motive is to scrutinize yourself. Consequently the best memoirs are self-contained as a novel and usually generated by a private urgency, often traumatic.

Some personal favorites are Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos; Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, August Burroughs Running with Scissors, Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye, James McBride’s The Color of Water, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, Mary Karr’s Lit, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas.

While seemingly narcissistic, people with the stamina, honesty, and skill to compelling write about their own life through a memoir–and publish it–have my greatest respect.

Do these divisions matter?

You don’t need to know these terms, yet alone respect them. But it’s nice to have a map when you go out for a drive. Even if you don’t look at it once, knowing your possible destinations can be useful to your writing practice. 

But ultimately you’re the chemist and the page is your lab. These genres don’t matter as much as technique (quality storytelling, research, writing) and vision (courage, honesty, resilience).

You can experiment with proportions of memoir and personal narrative. Maggie Nelson used the intimacy/immediacy of memoir with the intellectual vigor of personal narrative to produce The Argonauts, one of the most sui generis and emotionally moving books I’ve read in a long time. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stunning In Other Worlds is also a mixture of memoir in the service of “objective” themes: language acquisition, the (im)possibility of assimilation, the value of art and culture. Between the World and Me is a memoir that seems so relevant to current events it feels like personal narrative. Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards is technically a biography, but Masters is such a damn good writer it reads like a memoir. Drinking at the Movies is a graphic novel by Julia Wertz. It’s hilarious, irreverent, and pretty immature, yet it’s also unexpectedly poignant, honest, and sharp.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is one of the best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read–it’s neither memoir nor personal narrative and I’m going to quibble about where it belongs on a bookshelf later 🙂


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