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Memoir Monday: Point of View

I know, I know, it’s TUESDAY, not Monday, but “Memoir Tuesday” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. It is also Memoir May here at Writerland, which means I’m editing memoirs for 30% off my regular rate while my own memoir is being marked up with red ink. (E-mail me for a free estimate!) It also means that we have another guest post by Rachel Howard, who is an amazing teacher as well as memoir author.

Rachel Howard is the 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.

Rachel Howard

Shaping Truth with Point of View

In memoir, the default—and some might assume, only—point of view to call on is first-person: I did this, I thought that. After all, you’re the one telling this true story. But artfully shaped memoir and creative nonfiction can take surprising imaginative license with point of view without violating any of the facts or honesty of the story.

One point of view you can use without moving too far from the qualities of first-person is second-person: You do this, You think that. In this kind of second-person, you becomes something of a stand-in for I, and yet the effect of second-person is quite different from first. Second-person can convey the effect of the narrator separating from him or herself. It can also have the effect of implicating the reader or making the reader imagine him or herself as the protagonist because of the use of you. Laura Fraser wrote a complete memoir in second-person, An Italian Affair. Marilyn Abildskov uses the second person more intermittently in her memoir The Men in My Country, moving fluidly between the first-person and the second-person:

There’s the boy who hands me something after lunch, Presento, he says, then races off, waving good naturedly, Have a NICE day!, a phrase made popular on Japanese TV. I thank him twice, once in English and once in Japanese. Then I look at what he has handed me: two packets of mayonnaise.
There are the boys in seventh grade, some so small they they float in bunched-up paper bag pants, the boys that make you put your hand to your grown-up teacherly heart. There are the boys who hold hands walking down the hall, who sit in each other’s laps, and after a time, you don’t see anything strange about that touching at all. By eight grade, the acne begins and so does the acting out and you wonder how anyone survives eighth grade anywhere [. . .]
At school they write messages on the bottom of composition books, little lost boats you have the urge to keep and save. KEEP OO JAMMIN in all caps. Or questions that sail in on paper scraps, tiny letters in bottles that sail across the sea. Do Marilyn-sensei like Guns and Roses?
A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.

But memoir and creative nonfiction can also call upon the third-person point of view—he did this, he thought that—in unexpected ways. In Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Flynn writes many chapters—about a third of his book, actually—in the third person of his father’s point of view, rendering what his father did and thought in scenes that Flynn didn’t witness, and doing it with so much detail and conveyance of his father’s inner life that his father is almost a fictional character. It works, I think, because Flynn sets up an implicit reader understanding that he’s extrapolating from the facts of his father’s existence. He’s taking the surface facts and reshaping them to get at a deeper portrait of his dad—and at the same time, a deeper portrait of Flynn’s understanding of his dad.

Then there’s the way Abildskov uses third-person point of view. Consider the shift from first-person to third-person here:

I remember a couple standing in a small kitchen, making dinner one night. The air is thick. The man is Nozaki. The woman is me. What happens next I can see in a series of snapshots, click, click, click.
After the lull, the fall begins, Not all at once but gradually.
He cuts tomatoes. She watches the past cook. She has gone to a great deal of trouble to hunt down a jar of artichoke hearts and hopes he will like them, this delicacy he has never tried.
But after one bite, he makes a face.
Too sour, he says, and she eats the hearts alone that night.

Abildskov goes on this way for two more pages, writing in the third-person about herself, stepping back to look at herself as a character. Is this merely a surface flourish to jazz up her story? I don’t think so. I think it works to shape the deeper truth of what was happening between her and Nozaki, to put the reader inside the truth of that experience instead of reporting the surface fact of it (and also putting us inside the deeper truth of how she remembers it).

Experimenting with point of view might help you get beneath the surface facts of your story to bring the deeper truth to the fore.

16 comments to Memoir Monday: Point of View

  • Kristan

    Honestly? I never thought about POV in memoir. I kind of just assumed you would stick with first person. Thanks for opening my eyes!

    • meghancward

      I loved the scene from The Men in My Country and want to read it now. I'm dying to read a third-person excerpt from Another Bullshit Night, and when I think about my last post about memoir and the liberties people take – mine are nothing compared to Flynn's! Writing from the POV of his dad about scenes he didn't witness and calling it memoir? What would Oprah say? Speaking of Oprah, I heard the other day that she had James Frey on again and APOLOGIZED to him for not being more sensitive? I need to see that interview!

  • Second person would be hard to carry on for a long time, I think. Third person opens up the idea of objectivity a bit. Now, when I get around to writing my memoirs…

  • meghancward

    Travener – I read Laura Fraser's memoir – entirely in second person – and it WORKED. I loved it. But I think it has to be done well or it gets annoying. The third person … I've never read a memoir in third person, so I can't judge. And can't wait to read your memoirs! "The Secret Life of Travener X, Mysterious Writer Blogger of the Tinterwebs."

    • Lines can blur here, I think. You could do third person, in which case I would call it an autobiographical novel, which is how my memoir began. Then I switched to first person.

      Years ago I read a story by John Cheever that was written completely in second person. It was okay, but I wasn't that crazy about the viewpoint. Maybe it was the story. I'm not sure; it was too long ago. But if you say, Meghan, that Fraser's memoir worked for you, I want to read it.

      All of these memoirs Rachel writes about I'm going to put on my TBR list. I'd LOVE to read all of them, especially as I'm about to get into a second memoir that's about me and the brother I eventually rescued from a homeless shelter. I need to decide how to structure it, and now I could also think about viewpoint.

      Thanks, Meghan, for hosting Rachel, and for alerting me through email about this post. Please keep me alerted. I'm not as young as you are, and I seem to be forgetful lately, maybe because there's so much I'm trying to do and remember!

      • meghancward

        Ann, well you may not be as young in years, but you're showing us all up with your energy and commitment to your writing and your blog! I want to read the memoirs Rachel mentioned, too, but I have a long long list of books ahead of them.

        About second person – I've only read two other stories written that way (one fiction, one memoir) but they both worked.

  • dianeolberg

    Thanks Rachel and Meghan – useful advice on memoir writing. I think of The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls got all this so right. The ANC idea really makes sense, too. Thanks.

    • meghancward

      Diane – I still have not gotten around to reading The Glass Castle, but it's on my list! Is it written in first, second, or third person? And I was hoping you would share with us YOUR experience writing in second person!

  • Franzen's Freedom is partly written in third person by a narrator. I thought it was weird/unusual when I read it, but it definitely worked. I think I read a list of his "rules of writing" somewhere and one of them is to try to stick to third person. Then again, he has to work on a internet disabled laptop to get things done. : >

  • Within the main book, there's a memoir written in third person.. it's hard to explain… Someone should tell Frazen about Mac Freedom, I think he does something much more drastic. : >

    • meghancward

      But it's a fake memoir, right? Fictionalized? it's not Franzen's real memoir, or the memoir of a real person? I need to read it! So far behind on reading. I just finished the first book of The Hunger Games and it took me all of 30 seconds to download the second book. The joys of technology!

  • I love these examples, and how great to read Rachel’s insights here. I think it comes down to voice; any of these POV choices would backfire if done for effect alone. It’s all about ways of revealing emotional/psychological truth. Re: 2nd person, agree Laura F carried it off, but agree it can get too gimmicky in some hands. I always think of what Pam Houston, quoting someone else l(Lorrie Moore?) said about second person, “It’s first person too ashamed to say ‘I'” They spoke of fiction, but how powerful that could be, if handled well, in memoir.

  • Within the context of the book, she is a real person writing about herself in third person… it's quite unusual. Ha.. you've been saying you're behind on your reading for years! I can't image that having an e-reader helps that particular problem. : >

  • cozycoleman

    This is a fascinating thread. Sorry I missed it as it was happening. I'm working on some memoir writing at the moment and I keep bouncing back, do I want 3rd or 1st person… I hadn't considered switching. I'm afraid it would get too confusing.

  • Runa Fatehpuri

    Many thanks for opening up my eyes to using different POVs in memoirs. I like the idea of moving between First and Third person POVs. Can you successfully do it the other way round – from Third to First person POV? Alternatively can I write a memoir completely in Third person POV as I need to tell my story as a nine year old girl in a minority community suffering from social, sexual and religious injustices living in a Muslim country. There are injustices meted out to a nine year old girl she doesn't understand so how can I tell her story as an adult-self? Grateful for any any advice. Runa Fatehpuri