Improvising on a Life: Memoir as Performance

October 28, 2011 § 3 Comments


“First person narrative, memoir in particular, is like jazz; largely about the player, about where he riffs and scats, and how and why … As with jazz, the more specific and heartfelt the performance, the deeper and wider its impact.

“… as writers of nonfiction in the first person, we get to play, to scat, to take the solo, to emphasize the elements that ring true for us, to slide past the ones that don’t. A writer of memoir takes on personal history — that’s her script, her score — and uses her voice to inform those remembered events and to make them her own. She’s obligated to tell the truth, and she’s obligated to tell it her way.”

~ Dinah Lenney, from her remarkable essay Be Thou the Voice

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§ 3 Responses to Improvising on a Life: Memoir as Performance

  • sandrabranum says:

    For years I had difficulty finding my voice because I doubted myself. Now I realize that writing from your heart with a dash of your soul will always bring truth — even if you’re the only one who realizes it.

  • Dinty Moore, Dinah Lenney,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Dinah, this is a brilliant article. Dinty, you keep on giving us extravagant gifts. Profound and inspiring, especially on Virginia Woolf and Montaigne, two of my literary faves.

    This helps me with a personal essay I’m writing today.

    Thank you!

    Kaaren Kitchell

  • Dinah says:

    Dear Kaaren,

    Have you stumbled on Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live? The subtitle is something like ‘one question and 20 attempts at an answer,’ all found in the texts of Montaigne’s essays. It’s wonderful–

    and Virginia (like we’re on a first name basis, she and I), I can’t get enough of her either. When I need to toughen up–or to forgive myself for not knowing how, I dig into her collected letters, which are a comfort to me every time.

    Thanks for reading,
    Dinah

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