Case in point E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Now, White has a great little fishing tale peppered with memories and (dare I say) dramatic action. In this case I tend to believe the story as it is presented, because it definitely speaks with authority and fact. And the visuals are stupendous. The final line in the essay, “as [my son] buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death” (197) certainly brought new meaning to the traditional father-son fishing trip. Essentially, he too knows the chill brought to the family jewels by a cold pond, and it is that sensation that his son feels for the first time that actually completes the connection and defines the overall essence of this particular father-son outing.
In fact, this personal essay is about that bonding of father-son, just like the narrator bonded with his father on one fateful fishing trip. Men are funny. Catching the fish “as though they were mackerel…in a businesslike manner…and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head” (194). Now, I too, have been on a fishing trip and there is absolutely nothing “businesslike” about men bringing in a fish on a line. And the “blows to the head” probably only resulted as the men violently yelled at each other and tossed the fish manically around. But it’s definitely more customary of men to report a job well done and leave it at that. After all, they did catch a fish.
So, a personal essay, then, works exceptionally well with the old-fashioned hunting-adventure story. Only those who were actually present know of the true humiliation, and the capture and experience makes a great story. But this is again where confusion reigns. If the personal essay were such a good match for this type of tale, where would the memoir fit in? It is also primarily written in first person (can there even be a third person memoir?), and generally depicts an extraordinary moment in that person’s life, and is written in much the same way as this personal essay by E. B. White.
In fact, I personally couldn’t tell the two apart if they weren’t so handily categorized in this book. They both tell a little story, they both are told in first person, they both have a “valuable” lesson to impart (or was learned), and they both have predictable outcomes. So how are they even different? Why have two different categories for such literary forms?
Obviously there is a reason. So, let me dig into the book a little. The exact definition of a memoir means that a writer will “report from exotic territory…[and that a] memoir seems to threaten everyone” (79). Now, by definition, a personal essay is slightly different. A personal essay is, indeed, “like a conversation…and the difference between the personal essay and the memoir begins to emerge as the writer departs from storytelling to begin thinking” (191). This is great, to finally mark a difference between the two. Though, I must still confess that if a personal essay and a memoir got lost and I had to fit them back between the pages of this book, I would be extremely hesitant to categorize them. And in all honesty, I would probably categorize White’s piece as a memoir because he does reflect on the past and is informed enough now about his own personal growth, which I had always thought was required in a memoir.
Feeling that this is a failed attempt to even persuade myself on the topic, and desperately wishing for an ounce of grrr factor, I can only muse on the subject and decide to let it go. The personal essay, the literary journal, and the memoir just are. They have a purpose in the genre, they have a reason for authors to write and experience them, and they give us newbies something to shoot for. One wouldn’t even have to pick a category to really let loose their inner creative non-fiction genius. One would only have to get the tale on paper in an amusing and enlightening manner, sprinkle in a little self-understanding and call it a day. Let the publisher figure it out, they’re going to change things anyway. So, in conclusion (yes that’s so freshman), I decide to avoid any and all classification and just enjoy the reading.