Personal narrative is a term used to describe any narrative that tells the story of the author, and memoir is merely one type of personal narrative. The differences between memoirs and the other types of personal narrative -- autobiography, personal essay and fictionalized memoirs and novels -- usually have to do with the purpose of the narrative rather than the way in which it is written.
Memoir, in the simplest of terms, is nonfiction's answer to the novel. A memoir is a story that relies on scenes to communicate character, conflict, plot and theme just as it would happen in a novel. More specifically, a memoir is when the author uses specific events of her own life to distill and extract meaning, and communicate that meaning to the reader. For example, in Lucy Grealy's memoir "Autobiography of a Face," Grealy chronicles her lifelong battle with disfigurement after having one-third of her jaw removed during her bout with cancer as a child. What makes it a memoir is that she uses these events to show how she finally comes to understand that she is not defined by her face, but by the person she is underneath.
Autobiography is a mode of nonfiction similar to memoir, except that autobiographies focus more informing the reader about the remarkable life of the author rather than selecting specific events for the sole purpose of communicating an emotional theme. In this way, autobiography can be said to deal with "just the facts." An example of autobiography would be Bill Clinton's book "My Life: The Presidential Years."
Personal essay is often confused with memoir, and for good reason: The difference is a fine shade of definition. A personal essay, like the memoir, uses the author's experience to communicate a theme that will -- if the author has done her job well -- resonate with her readers. The difference, however, is focus. The memoir focuses primarily on the author: It's the author's story; she is the subject. The theme is extrapolated by the reader, and is not told directly or communicated in any sort of thesis statement. In a personal essay, conversely, the message is the subject, and the author uses her experience as more of a vehicle to communicate the message. Furthermore, personal essays are usually -- as the name suggests -- essay-length and not book-length.
Fcitionalized Personal Narrative
While some might disagree that personal narratives can be fiction, novelists write their own stories all the time. A famous recent example is James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces." The book -- originally printed as a memoir -- was exposed as having been written with added fictional elements. In his book "Can't You Get Along with Anyone?: A Writer's Memoir and a Tale of a Lost Surfer's Paradise," Allan C. Weisbecker reports that Frey had first pitched the book as a novel, but his publisher would only buy it if they could label it as a memoir.
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