What’s wonderful about the decision to write memoir is the clear choice you face when deciding who’s going to narrate your book. It’s you! No need to weigh between first person and third person. You lived it and it’s your story.
There is a decision to make, however, between the two narrative voices you have at your disposal when you dive in and start to write your scenes. These are what Sue William Silverman aptly calls the “Voice of Innocence” and the “Voice of Experience.” You make use of the Voice of Innocence when recalling an event that happened in the past, but it’s not necessarily the voice of the child. It can simply be the voice of you in that moment—whether you were five or twenty or thirty-five.
It’s the Voice of Experience, however, that’s always the voice of now. This is the narrative voice that speaks from a place of reflection and insight that can always be overlaid onto any scene in order to draw conclusions or make interpretations about a given event that happened in the past.
I am again going to share a passage from Sue William Silverman, since it’s so eloquently written, to showcase the difference between the two voices:
The Voice of Innocence relates the facts of the story, the surface subject or action. It’s the voice that tells us, in effect, “first this happened, and then this next thing happened.” Additionally, the Voice of Innocence reveals the raw, not-yet-understood emotions associated with the story’s action by portraying the person you were (and what you felt) when the sequence of events actually took place.
The Voice of Experience adds a more mature voice or persona that, in effect, explains and deepens the Voice of Innocence with metaphor, irony, reflection. This voice offers the progression of thought in memoir by examining what the Voice of Innocence (facts and raw emotions) means. This more complex viewpoint interprets and reflects upon the surface subject. Say, for example, the Voice of Innocence describes feeling lonely; then, the Voice of Experience seeks to understand why you’re lonely, what it means. What are the ramifications of past occurrences and behaviors? What are the metaphors that deepen the events? With this voice you transform the lived moment, rather than merely reminisce or recollect it.
It’s important to know that the Voice of Experience can come in at any point in your narrative, and that you can be fluid and free with each voice. It may be a bit of a learning curve to figure out the balance for your particular book, but this is a place where rigidity can be banned. You get to explore what the child you or the young adult you or the last year you did, and you get to reflect upon it from the now. This is the joy of memoir writing and ultimately a reward for your reader—to see what happened to you and what you think about it now. Without the former, the story is lacking the power of what you experienced in the moment; without the latter, there is no insight or universalisms for the reader to hold onto. Although there are memoirs that only make use of the Voice of Innocence or only the Voice of Experience, most memoirs will benefit from an integration of both.
In addition to voice, please consider these few points that have to do with connecting to your reader and which ultimately also enhance the narrative voice.
• Relatability. Consider some of the top-selling memoirs out there: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. All of these writers came to the table with pretty unique stories. It’s not that most of us can relate, per se, to Strayed’s experience of having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, or Walls’s portrayal of growing up with pretty much insane and neglectful parents; or Gilbert’s capacity to leave everything behind to tour the world in search of herself. And yet these authors wrote in a way that moved their readers. Sometimes a random or strange life story is what moves people to write memoir in the first place, but if you don’t know how to invite the reader into your inner world, then you’re not going to hold their interest. You must keep an eye on making your story universal to all readers—and you must do this from the point of concept to the point of completion.
• Insights. Most writers are insightful or they wouldn’t write in the first place. But do you know when and how to deliver your insights? Your insights come from the Voice of Experience, and perhaps that understanding alone will help you determine where to place them in your memoir. Share your insights and own the fact that you have something to say. (I know it’s scary! Wait till we get to transparency.) But if you sacrifice your insights for the sake of getting all the details of something that happened (Voice of Innocence) just right, you’ll probably lose your readers’ interest. Insights are important because these are the times when you’re reaching out to your reader rather than asking your reader to be with you. It’s a give and take.
• Transparency. This includes honesty, truthtelling, and being vulnerable. For some people this comes so naturally that it’s a nonissue. For others it’s like pulling teeth. Many writers don’t realize how much you have to put yourself out there until they’ve delved into some memoir writing. Most memoirists, other than those who don’t even know the meaning of the word shame, will freak out at various junctures. This probably means you’re writing a good memoir. We live in a tell-all culture, and if you don’t want to tell all then you should consider writing a novel. It’s important to distinguish the difference, however, between telling everything about yourself and telling everything about other people. I’m not suggesting that you sacrifice family relations for the sake of your memoir (though many people do), or that you bash all your exes for a good laugh (though many people do). You don’t have to alienate everyone you know to tell the truth, but you do have to take risks.
•Read Sue William Silverman’s full article on the narrative voice.