Basically, story and essay are labels defining two ends of a spectrum of focus ranging from thinking to acting. Both are components of Story, an umbrella category that essentially comprises the operating system of the human brain. We use Story to make sense of life and the world we live in. Story explains how things fit together. It explains what happened and helps us predict what might happen next. It defines our place in the cosmic order. Story provides identity on all levels from “child of …” to “best friends forever” to “writer” to “This Is MY Country …”
As common usage has evolved over the last few decades, the term essay, specifically personal essay, has come to refer to relatively short compositions expressing the writer’s beliefs, values, and opinions about events, experiences and meaningful topics. Writing an essay is generally an adventure in self-understanding, as these beliefs and opinions may change as they are clearly articulated and organized on the page.
Story, specifically life story, generally focuses more on experiences and events as such.
Traditionally essays were confined to strict reason. Stories on the other hand had plots, action, drama, dialogue, all the elements that keep a person’s heart pumping and eyes locked on the page.
These differences began to disappear in the 1980s as the new genre of creative nonfiction began to emerge. Creative non-fiction has paved the way for the essayist to include personal opinions and experience. Today personal essay is as likely as story to have dialogue, description and action, perhaps even plot, so differences blur and become a bit meaningless. But the terms still exist in the general vocabulary and still serve some purpose.
Circling back to the earlier concept of a continuous spectrum, I see essay as a useful term for describing writing that focuses primarily on values, attitudes, beliefs, stories about what and how we think. At the other end, those compositions we generally think of as stories tend to focus more on action and experience — what happened.
The spectrum illustrates the fact that essays need to include at least a little bit of action or experience to provide context for thoughts. Readers want to know what happened to lead you to your current beliefs. They want to know the “story” of that belief. Likewise, stories that don’t include a certain amount of reflection and interpretation seem shallow and leave readers wondering how you felt and thought about the situation.
In general, personal essays are well-suited for the overall purpose of Story in making sense of experiences and perceptions. The essay writing process helps arrange reflective fragments into insights and coherent story. Once this basic understanding is in place, it can be embellished and polished into a work of art by employing description, dialogue, plot, and other tools that add impact for readers.
Stories that connect with readers will have it all: action and reflection artfully blended with all the elements that add impact. They’ll sit somewhere along the center of that spectrum.
You could start at either end to write these stories. Perhaps a journal entry about a puzzling situation inspires a story. Perhaps writing the story of an exciting situation prompts you to begin digging deeper into your feelings about it. There is no formula for concocting these powerful stories, but there are lots of inspiring ideas.
You can easily find mountains of books with guidelines for writing stories, but I have found only three that focus on writing non-academic personal essays. Sheila Bender’s Writing and Publishing Personal Essays is a classic, now in its second edition. Sheila has graciously agreed to share some starter ideas for writing personal essays in the next three posts here. Stay tuned!
Write now: read back through a few stories or scenes from your memoir and notice how much content addresses your thoughts about events and experiences in the stories.