Understanding Personal Essays: Memoir Essays

By Abigail Green
Abigail Green“As a child in the late 1940s, I knew it was spring when I smelled newly mown lawns in the neighborhood.”  So begins Ronald J. Barwell’s essay in  AARP Bulletin. The column “What I Really Know” solicits 250-word essays on various topics, such as marriage, letter writing, and spring fever. Most of these essays would fall under the category of memoir. They spring from a childhood memory, an old photograph, or the recollection of a long-gone loved one.

 
Many people think of books when they hear the word “memoir,” but there’s actually a whole category of essays that falls under that subject. In fact, many book-length memoirs are a series of essays strung together between one cover.
Within memoir, there are vastly different sub-categories as well. An essay about your late grandmother’s famous coconut cake could find a home in a food magazine. A memoir about a childhood summer vacation might be a fit for a travel magazine. There’s even a market for erotica memoirs. (See Nerve.com under “features,” then “personal essays.” Warning: reader discretion is advised.)
 
On her web site, author Joan Tornow provides sample memoir essays on topics ranging from Thanksgiving turkey to being a new teacher. Check out the one titled “Crayon Magic” for a particularly good example of this type of essay. She advises would-be memoir writers to read as many memoirs as they can, begin writing about their memories in any order they choose, and join a writers’ group specializing in memoirs.
 
The keys to a good memoir essay are the same as for any essay: show, don’t tell, by using active, descriptive, sensory words and phrases. Paint a picture for the reader with your words. Set the piece in a clear time and place. Introduce us to the characters in your story. Use dialogue if it helps. In terms of technique, the memoir essay probably shares more with fiction than any other type of personal essay.
 
I once read a beautifully written essay in (the sadly, now-defunct) Hallmark Magazine about the writer’s recollection of her father’s beloved toolbox. It was rich with memories and emotions, and all the more compelling because it was a true story.
 
So reach back into your memories and old scrapbooks and start putting some of your stories down on the page in your next personal essay. 
 

Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at http://diaryofanewmom.blogspot.com.

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