by Lynette Benton
In her post, No Man’s Land, Victoria raised intriguing questions about time periods in diaries and memoirs. She wrote that it was her understanding that diaries address current events, while memoirs record the past. Seems straightforward enough.
Diaries = present
Memoirs = past
But here’s a complication: She also mentioned seeing some memoirs that cover events as they unfold. (And I’m not even going into the idea held by some physicists and many mystics that time doesn’t really exist anyway and that everything’s actually happening in the infinite, illusive Now.)
Among the excellent memoirs written about events currently taking place in the writer’s life are those by Eva Hoffman (efforts to assimilate into American culture); Ann Morrow Lindbergh (desire to simplify her life); and Kate Millet (bouts with her own certifiable madness).
However, even journals written about the present include references to the past, or how else would we have meaningful contexts? The present always arises out of the past. Even if we’re suffering from amnesia, we have a past—and it’s likely that someone, somewhere knows that past.
So, since both journals and memoirs can be written about the present, it could be possible, as EVF stated in reply to the comment I left, “to get these forms all muddled.”
That’s because diaries and memoirs, along with personal essays, are all reflective writing genres, and share a number of trademark elements.
Self-disclosure is a major ingredient in these genres.
“Without meaningful self-disclosure, the memoir will lack authenticity and honesty,” says Linda Gartz, a family historian, who is also working on a memoir.
Further similarities among diaries, memoirs, and personal essays:
- They all lend themselves to journeys of exploration.
- Most cultivate an intimate, conversational tone. (Think: Eat, Pray, Love.)
- The writer is firmly present as the “I” in the writing.
Another trait these genres have in common is a certain inconclusiveness. Gartz says her memoir “will end not with hard facts, but rather with reflection . . . .”
These forms invite us to on a journey of inner exploration. Instead of just a glimpse into the writers’ minds, we get to meander there as they figure out, and sometimes even discover, how they really feel about an issue by examining it, engaging with it, on paper. One idea leads to others.
Joan Didion’s graceful essay, “In Bed,” begins with a description of her suffering from migraines and ends, almost as if the idea suddenly struck her midway through her writing, with the insight that the migraines might serve a purpose for her.
One significant difference among these forms is that in general, journals are addressed to the self, whereas essays and memoirs are addressed to an audience.
Journals = private
Personal essays and memoirs = public
But every rule’s got an exception, right? Michael Kinsley, editor of The Slate Diaries, invited a variety of people to write diary entries for that excellent anthology. Did the fact that the guest writers knew their journals would be made public influence what they wrote?
In each of these forms, the writer shepherds readers through their personal feelings and perspective to universal experience.
Lynette Benton teaches creative writing all over the place—to teens and adults. She is also an editor. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and online venues, such as Skirt.com and More Magazine online. She uses her diary as a feeder for her memoir-in-progress, My Mother’s Money. You can reach her at Relief11@verizion.net.