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Voice in memoirs

March 27, 2016

Tags: voice, persona

People who talk about "voice in memoir" aren't always talking about the same thing.
Sue William Silverman writes "In short, the Voice of Innocence conveys what happened: 'I press the scarf to my face, inhaling autumn dusk.' It leads the reader through the actual surface event. The Voice of Experience, on the other hand, examines what the author, sitting at her desk, writing, understands about events now. It offers insight to the reader: this is what the lived moment means. The scarf is more knowable than the man." ~ Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir (Women on Writing).

"Voice is what gives us the personal touch," writes Leslie Miller. "It’s what fascinates us. It’s what allows us to really get to know the author. It’s the difference between reading a book about cults, and reading the memoir of someone who was in a cult.

"Voice in memoir is the difference between a laundry list of facts, events, and descriptions, and an engrossing read.

"Voice in memoir is your distinct personality coming through, whether that’s cynical, witty, dry, passionate, opinionated, emotional . . . or all of the above. You cannot write memoir without exposing yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, your journey. What would be the point?

"You can go as deeply into yourself as you want; not everyone has the capacity to go deep. But go you must, and it must appear on the page for all too see!"
~ from The Importance of Voice in Memoirs ( 2-25-14)

"Think of your memoir’s voice as your book’s personality," says Paul Balzer. "We won’t know if your memoir is quirky, funny, semi tragic, and ultimately uplifting unless your voice lets us know it is. Frank McCourt’s childhood in Angela’s Ashes and Haven Kimmel’s childhood in A Girl Named Zippy have a completely different feel, even if on some level they are both tragic in their own right. This is because each of these authors has a completely different voice, and they use it to relay their stories in different manners. ~Finding Your Memoir's Voice ~ (Writer's Digest, 4-12-11)

The most essential elements of a well-written memoir, says Judith Barrington, are "Honesty, enough distance from the story to craft it as literature, beautiful and rhythmic use of language, a likeable narrative voice. ~20 Questions Answered by Judith Barrington (Women on Writing)


" In this way there are two protagonists in most memoirs," writes David Mura. "The first protagonist is the past self. This past self had particular goals at various times in the past, which can run from the seemingly trivial to the profound, from the routine events of childhood to the struggle to survive neglect, abuse, and other forms of trauma. The present self which narrates the memoir is the second protagonist. Her goal is to find a voice, a language which will not only tell the events of the past but to come to terms with that past, to reveal what it means now to the self in the present....
Often, as the writer starts a memoir, the voice remains a bit too anchored in the earlier consciousness, the earlier self. There’s not quite a voice which delineates the things the earlier self does not see or understand, or the lies the earlier self is telling to herself, the gaps in her consciousness. "Thus, at the start of the writing, the firmness of the present self is often far less established than that of the younger self. It is in the writing of the memoir that the author discovers and creates the voice of the present self." ~~ from Story and narrative voice in memoir (Gulf Coast, 4-27-15)

So, What? The Reflective Voice in Memoir and Why It Matters (Marilyn Bousquin, Writing Women's Lives, 9-3-14) Without the reflective voice, a story can remain a surface recounting of events, which leaves your readers scratching their heads and saying, “So, what?”

"Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” ~ Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative


See more on this subject here: Persona, voice, and point of view in memoir