What is the difference between journaling and memoir writing?

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When a man in one of my writing workshops complained that he hates reading his own journals, I knew exactly what he meant. I wrote in a journal every day for almost 10 years, but whenever I looked through one of my own books, I quickly became bored. My journals were so personal, so informal, and had so little thought towards future readability, even I didn’t want to read them.

However, I loved the process of pouring words on to paper. During these sessions, I became clearer about my own thoughts. And journaling provided a perfect postscript to meditation, helping me put to rest all those memories and ideas that I stirred up while I was sitting with my eyes closed. After years of practice transferring the contents of my mind on to paper, I became a faster, more agile writer. But despite these benefits, the journals themselves were neither informative nor entertaining, and I finally grew tired of writing only for myself.

To communicate with other people, I couldn’t just say the first thing that came to mind. I had to filter and organize my thoughts, then build up a coherent narrative. Ultimately, I decided the most interesting way to connect with people would be to try to write a memoir. So I began remembering and recording vignettes, putting them into order and finding their shape.

The best way to ensure that my writing would be readable was to share it with fellow writers. The feedback from critique groups caused me to rethink my style and adjust my phrasing. This goal of communicating with readers was turning out to be as different from journaling as walking around the house in my pajamas was different from suiting up to stand on a podium. The private act takes place simply and automatically, while the one that is intended for an audience needs attention detail and to concern for social convention.

Of course, informal writing had its advantages. During those relaxed sessions, I was able to catch my inner critics off guard, allowing me to engage my psyche in an authentic discussion. I didn’t want to give that up. And it turned out, I didn’t need to. On the contrary, memoir writing has become a natural extension of my earlier experience. Now, instead of letting my mind roam wherever it wants, I simply direct it towards particular situations. Once I start thinking about a scene, I am back in journal writing mode, allowing words to flow freely.

I still discover interesting phrases, ideas, and memories that I had not thought about before I started. But now, instead of setting my writing aside and forgetting about it, I use it as raw material with which to build a larger work. And editing does not detract from its introspective clarity. In fact, as I polish my draft, I take time to ponder my original thinking, making it clearer not only for my audience but also for me. By the time I finish dressing up my writing in a form that will appeal to readers, I have turned it from an isolated product into a public one.

More memoir writing resources

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