Memoir versus essay collection

Which fact-based form fits you best?

Memoir versus essay collection
Figure out if your life is better suited for a memoir or an essay collection.

We all have stories inside of us that we hope to release to the world one day. 

Perhaps those stories are about one particular theme that just keeps popping up in your life sporadically, but memorably, over a period of time. Perhaps those stories span over a chunk of your life, or even the majority. You start getting the urge to put it all down in a book. But how should you go about organizing them on the page? Which form of creative nonfiction is best for you? 

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No matter what form your manuscript will ultimately take, digging deep into your Rolodex of memories and jotting down the stories you want to tell is the best first step you can take when deciding to write a body of work that’s about your personal life. Once you’ve decided what your focus will be, then it’s time to choose a format.

There are a lot of different forms of writing underneath the nonfiction umbrella. You can write a book that’s filled with a mix of your personal experiences, juxtaposed with practical advice and steps other people can take, and label it a self-help book. You can write about your entire life, in chronological order, from birth until right now, and call it an autobiography. But most creative nonfiction writers need to choose between writing their life stories as a memoir or an essay collection. Before choosing one or the other, it’s important to know what first makes each of those literary “vessels” different.

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The traditional memoir

Think of the memoir as an all-encompassing way to tell stories from your life. Yet unlike an autobiography, it doesn’t have to span over the course of your entire life, but instead can focus on a period of time, a group of characters, or a specific personal theme. 

Memoirs can take on a handful of different forms. The most common, the one you might often see in bookstores, is the long memoir, which reads like a novel and can be a hundreds of pages long, with many different chapters. (Think Eat Pray Love, The Liars’ Club, or This Boy’s Life.) But that’s not your only option when it comes to memoir.

Memoir as compilation

An alternative approach is writing the memoir as an anthology, which means that you would decide on a collection of stories that are grouped around a character or a theme and strung together in a chronological sequence, with recurring references throughout. 

A benefit of going with this structure is that it makes writing a memoir easier, since instead of writing your story and breaking it up by chapter, you can tell your story in a series of essays that flow in order of when they occurred in your life. 

In a novel-like memoir, there is more pressure to utilize a unity to the story to give a unified experience of a book. In an anthology memoir, that pressure is off and each essay can be written in a different style if the author chooses, granting more freedom when telling each story. This style also works If you find you have a wide collection of stories from over the years that are centered around a recurring theme. 

A memoir takes the reader on a journey through a writer’s life, whereas an essay collection takes the reader on a journey through a writer’s thoughts, sprinkled into real-life experiences.

The short memoir

Another option that falls into the memoir family is to write your memoir as a short book, tossing out a mandatory word count or number of chapters. Though it’s true that most traditionally published books fall within a set page count, including memoirs, there’s no law that says a manuscript must be a certain length. So if you’re worried that you don’t have 200 pages to write, don’t let that stop you from telling your story. If there’s one life milestone or event or a common theme that you have a handful of stories about, you can group them together and write a short-form memoir. One benefit is that this is something you can write on a shorter deadline than a long-form memoir or an anthology memoir. You may experience some difficulty when seeking traditional print publication, but don’t let that stop you; you can always seek publication online or self-publish, since it lends itself to being read on an electronic device over a short period of time. 

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The stand-alone personal essay

One more option to consider is the option of a personal essay. The standard memoir is usually centered around a collection of stories or even a group of particular characters. But a personal essay isn’t; rather, it’s a singular meditation built around a particular topic, whether that’s dating, career, religion, or money. A series of essays can cover a wealth of topics within one volume. In short, a memoir takes the reader on a journey through a writer’s life, whereas an essay collection takes the reader on a journey through a writer’s thoughts, sprinkled into real-life experiences.

Choosing a format

When you’re deciding what format to go with for your own personal stories, start by looking at the story outline that you have created. If you’re looking to let readers into the depths of your personal experiences, through character development, recurring themes, and stories that all somehow interlock and flow in an organized way, then a long-form, short-form, or anthological memoir might be your path. But if you’re more interested in exploring particular topics that lend themselves not only to personal experience but also to conveying your opinions and general observations, then your path might be to begin working on a collection of essays. No matter what you choose, the road will be both difficult and incredibly rewarding, as both require true courage, the processing of memories, and access to your heart. 

 

Jen Glantz is the host of the You’re Not Getting Any Younger podcast, founder of the viral business Bridesmaid for Hire, the creator of the blog The Things I Learned From, and the author of the Amazon best-selling book All My Friends are Engaged. Her new book, Always a Bridesmaid for Hire, published by Simon and Schuster, is available now. Jen is a freelance writer for more than 25 different publications, including Today.com, Glamour magazine, Prevention magazine, BRIDES magazine, and Bumble (the dating app). She teaches creative nonfiction and memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City.