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MMW Member Chris Lucka provided the following: Personal Essay, Personal Narrative, Memoir

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

During the MMW Zoom/critique meeting on October12th, questions arose about the definitions of these three concepts: personal essay, personal narrative and memoir. I volunteered to research them, and immediately called my “go-to guru” when I have sticky writer questions involving grammar, sentence structure or any rules pertaining to writing. He teaches advanced placement (AP) English classes and has never failed me. I also called upon another personal friend who taught college prep high school English.

In a nutshell, the personal essay deals with one topic, one viewpoint in (usually) a five paragraph essay. It’s an informative opinion piece with introduction and summary or conclusion. It would not include dialogue unless quoting a source. The personal narrative tells a story – maybe how the author learned to bake cookies with grandma, scored the winning shot in the basketball game versus the local first-place team, etc. This piece contains dialogue as well as the memoir which is similar but memoir tends to have a purpose or a truth to share. It’s non-fiction based on the life experiences, emotions, events of the author.

Personal essay is a common type of writing assignment for freshman composition, college entrance essays or a personal statement for employers. It’s a type of creative non-fiction. Its purpose is to demonstrate clear, concise writing that is original and imaginative and showcases the ability to recount and interpret a personal experience. The personal essay in essence is an opinion piece.

Personal narrative is generally written in first person and uses elements of setting, plot and character(s) and dialogue. It’s a story. The opening introduces the experience and communicates its significance. The narrative shows how the experience has helped shape the author through sensory and other details, analysis and personal opinion. It presents true characteristics of the author. It’s based on an event that caused a prominent change in the author’s life.

Memoir is a subgenre of autobiography or biography, generally written in first person. It’s a non-fiction narrative based on the author’s life. The narrower focus on specific events, experiences, emotions are chosen specifically to present a lesson or message shared with readers. In The Glass Castle Jeannette Walls tells of going into the desert Christmas night with her father and siblings. He has them choose a star and name it. This is their Christmas gift. The point is to show how they enjoyed the holiday, made lasting memories even though very, very poor.

In conclusion it seems that personal narrative and memoir can bleed into one another. The author should keep in mind the purpose of the piece, the goal in writing and the targeted audience. This should help indicate whether a piece is categorized as personal essay, personal narrative or memoir.

Chris Lucka

October, 2020

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Unknown member
Nov 14, 2020

Thank you Chris for this wonderful writing tip!


Unknown member
Nov 14, 2020

Thank you, Chris. Very informative!

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