Today we have a guest post from Rachel Howard, author of the memoir The Lost Night: A Daughter’s Search for the Truth of Her Father’s Murder, described as “enthralling” by the New York Times. Her personal essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and O, the Oprah Magazine. Her advice is quoted extensively in The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and now teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and Stanford Continuing Studies.
Narrator, Character: The Two “Yous”
When just beginning to write a memoir, it often helps to think about your narrator. Which is simply you, right? Well, yes and no.
It might seem like simply being yourself should be easy, and sometimes if you hit a groove this might be true. But most of the time, finding the “you” best suited to telling the story is hard work, which involves trying out different voices and seeing what clicks with your material. You wouldn’t speak to your boss the same way you would speak to your best friend from high school, and you wouldn’t speak to your best friend the same way you speak to your husband, even though all those ways of speaking may be equally you. You wouldn’t tell a story about hunting for a parking spot in the same way you’d tell the story of your beloved grandmother’s death. In memoir, too, you have to find the right version of yourself for the story you’re telling, and the audience you want to tell it to. As Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir:
“If the memoir is to be something more than a thin reportorial digest of events, if it is to matter, then the writer must create her identity on the page, making it as persuasive and compelling as that of any realized fictional protagonist. In other words, the memoirist’s ‘I’ must be an inhabited character, a voice that takes possession of its account.”
But some writers are so naturally outgoing, charming, or intimate that speaking as a narrator is, for them, as easy as walking. For such writers, there’s often a flip-side challenge: presenting yourself as a character. Natural narrators often benefit from stepping back to remember who they were in the “then” they’re recounting, and to remember the reader doesn’t know all the things about your former self that you take for granted. You might also need to see things about yourself then that you hadn’t yet recognized—and make sure to depict them for the reader.
Getting the distinction between “you” as a narrator and “you” as a character in personal writing can allow you to play more with perspective and time. Especially in memoir, the “you” telling the story now sees from a vantage point that the “you” as a character in the story could not. The energy of your story sparks in the difference and dynamism between the two “yous.” When creative nonfiction writing starts flattening, this is often because the writer has not stepped back to make that separation between “you” in the story and “you” telling it. This applies whether you’re telling the story from the vantage point of a few years, a few months, or even just a few days.
Put in a less theoretical way, this is all to say that in creative nonfiction, “you” as a narrator must work towards tremendous powers of distance and perspective from the events you’re relating. You have to be—and one of the great rewards of writing is that on the page you get to be—superhuman. If you were whiny or bitter at that Thanksgiving dinner with your annoying mother-in-law three years ago, you see that about yourself now. Maybe you laugh at yourself about it. Your character in the scene can still be whiny or bitter, but your narrator knows it, acknowledges it, and is honest about it. Even if you didn’t see that you were being whiny and bitter until you wrote the scene and re-read it.
Creative nonfiction asks a lot of us writers in this way. It’s always tough to critique a memoir or personal essay and say, “the narrator seems to be a little bitter here,” or “the narrator still seems angry about this.” It’s tough because so often in life, we have every reason to be bitter or angry or resentful or naive—we’re human. But in creative nonfiction, your narrator must be superhuman. That’s the hard work and the payoff.