Back to Basics, Part 1

ABCsAfter whizzing past this blog’s seven year mark three weeks ago, I’ve realized how much ground we’ve covered. It’s time to review of some basics, and terminology is a great place to start.

I’m often asked to define and explain the  differences among six terms in common usage for describing written accounts of personal history. This overview should answer any questions.

Autobiography — a chronological account documenting events of your life from birth through the present. Given the amount of material that is generally covered, these works tend to emphasize basic facts with relatively little reflection and insight.

Memoir — a narrative account of a specific, bounded aspect of your life. You can write many memoirs to emphasize different facets. Typical examples of memoir content include military service, career experience, surviving a hurricane, illness or various sorts of abuse, or perhaps your experiences with quilting, cooking or a favorite sport. Formal memoir is an integrated story using fiction techniques such as an ongoing plot (story line, story arc), scenes, dialog and more. Like autobiography, memoirs are typically book length and divided into chapters. Unlike autobiography, they incorporate insights, emotions, and other elements to emphasize a message in the included material and bring it to life for readers.

Life Story (lifestory) — short, self-contained stories about specific events and experiences. These stories focus on things you did or things that happened to you. They may be combined into anthologies or “story albums” for sharing with others, and they may be incorporated as scenes in memoir or autobiography. Language and structure of life stories may be more or less formal and polished, depending on your levels of interest and skill. These stories are a great way to ease into life writing.

Personal Essay — stories about your beliefs, values and opinions. In their purest form, personal essays focus on thoughts and feelings, life stories on actions and experiences. In reality, the line between them blurs, and the most compelling stories have elements of both. Distinctions between them are meaningless.

Journaling — spontaneous accounts of anything that comes to mind: events, thoughts, hopes, fears, the weather, rants and more. Journal writing is helpful for sorting things out and making sense of life, and purely spontaneous journaling has documented health benefits. You can write journals like letters to the future, intended as a legacy, but may lose some health benefits in the process.

Freewriting — similar to journaling, but usually destined for the wastebasket or fireplace. During sessions of freewriting, you write spontaneously, without thought of form, spelling, or other elements of shared writing. It’s useful for getting ideas onto paper where you can see them and further refine them for sharing with others or just making sense of them for yourself.

Based on levels of complexity, freewriting and journaling are the simplest forms, intended only for personal review, not sharing with others. They serve well to gather your thoughts before writing more material for others to read. Life stories and personal essays are the next rung on the ladder, presenting your thoughts and ideas in and orderly, logical flow. Autobiography and memoir are the most involved, drawing on elements of both lifestories and memoir.

Please understand you need not make a choice. Each form is a tool, and you can use all of them. Many people begin with life stories, then integrate those into an anthology and/or autobiography. After writing the overview, they may drill down to explore certain areas more deeply in a series of memoirs. But if all you do is write a few simple stories, that is a noble accomplishment.

Write now: Ponder these various forms of writing and explore ways each may help you achieve your life writing project goals.


Ron said...

Hi Sharon!

Just popped by to say thank you for dropping by my blog this morning. It was so nice to meet you! And I see that you're from Pittsburgh, because I'm from PA too...Philadelphia!

Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing the differences between each term because I was unclear on several of them. I probably write a combination of two - Life Story and Personal Essay.

And congrats on having your blog for seven years!

That awesome!

Have a super weekend!

KathyPooler said...

Congratulations, Sharon on seven years of blogging! I appreciate your focus on "getting back to the basics." I wish I had this list of definitions when I was starting out on my memoir writer's journey several years ago. I ended up learning the hard way and along the way. Thanks for sharing and I will spread the word. Wishing you many more fruitful years of blogging. :-)

Belinda Nicoll said...

Well done, Sharon - that's quite a record! Thanks for sharing these easy-to-understand definitions. Back in my life coaching days, I offered guided journaling to a number of clients - taking them through the various levels of a behavior change model, they were able to contemplate, and express themselves on, specific issues, like environment and their responses to specific situations, the influence of skills on behavior, values and beliefs, etcetera. I guess that could be seen as a sub-category of mainstream journaling?

Sharon said...

Thanks for stopping by Ron. Nice to meet another Pennsylvanian. Between us and a couple of others, we have this state covered! I'm glad that the definitions were helpful.

Sharon said...

Hi Ron, thanks for stopping by. Nice to know another Pennyslvanian. Between us and a couple of others, we have this state covered! Glad the definitions cleared out the fog.

Sharon said...

Thanks Kathy. I'm always surprised how few know these differences. Perhaps I wouldn't either if I hadn't been invited in 2001 to write a guest article for a Filipino publication to explain them. I thought I knew, but as I doubled back to make sure, I discovered more material that really opened it up.

Sharon said...

Belinda, I'm a firm believer in journaling and have studied it extensively, but it seems to me that the number of variations are approximately equal to the number of people teaching it -- perhaps the number engaging in it. I guess it's a lot like teaching writing. There is no "right' way to do that. Each teacher approaches it a bit differently, and in my opinion, studying with a variety of people, expands your perspective. That variety of people may include members of writing groups as well as formal teachers and coaches.

SuziCate said...

I thank you for all you have provided others through your blog. You have been a wealth of information and inspiration. Kudos to you, Sharon.

Sharon said...

Thanks Suzi. You are also inspiring people with your new Kindle anthology. I'm sorry your link didn't come through to The Water Witch's Daughter so people can check it out.