Last fall, I was teaching a workshop on how to write essays, and one question came up again and again: what is an essay. A simple question from the outside, but a harder one to answer from the inside, because so much of what is called an essay these days feels like a lot of other things.
Back in high school and college and even graduate school, an essay comprised five highly structured paragraphs creating a tightly woven thesis. The length increased as did the course numbers of the class, but the rules were pretty straight forward: no first person, all claims must be documented, and don’t make any claims that can’t be documented.
But when I taught the “essay” class, I didn’t mean any of that. In fact, what I was thinking of as an essay is exactly opposite of that academic description. To me, an essay is a highly subjective, personal story that weaves and dips along the contours of life.
But why isn’t that a memoir? And when an essay is about a place — a place readers might like to visit — why isn’t that a travel article? And those numbered or bulleted essays enumerating items or people or qualities — why aren’t those just called, well, lists?
In the Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick unpacks the nuances of essay and memoir and makes a distinction that helps me as I write. In an essay, Gornick says, “the writer is using her persona to explore a subject other than herself.” In a memoir, “the focus would have been reversed.”
“A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, and deliver wisdom,” Gornick writes. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
The differences in the two are subtle, and for some pieces of writing, we’d be hard-pressed to tease out a distinction. The differences for me do matter, though; they are the reason I more often write essays than memoir.
But it’s the similarities that I find most striking. For in both memoir and essay, there is the persona, the “me” that is created on the page to do the work of the telling. “I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation at hand,” Gornick says. “I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.” The persona both is and isn’t me as I write. As she lives, I live. But as she dies, I die. And she dies if I don’t do the work of writing.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Maya Angelou said.
So I write, regardless of what whether it’s an essay or memoir or list.
I write in order to live.
Photo by Green Chameleon via Unsplash.