Developing a Time of Writing Voice in Memoir
February 5, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Jennifer Jordán Schaller
Even though self-compassion is not my strongest trait, I was able to figure out how to characterize myself in my memoir manuscript after reflecting on my writing using a few steps. My manuscript explores the effect of trauma on the ability of the protagonist, that’s me, to parent as an adult. My old dissertation director, Greg Martin, calls this the “time-of-writing” voice, the voice that struggles to make sense of the past. In one scene, I explore domestic violence from the point of view of an abuser.
By the way, I was the abuser.
Sibling abuse in my home occurred when I was given power I did not deserve. When I was nine years old, I *babysat* my brother. Here’s a sample scene:
My mom was a single mother who left for work each weekday morning while my brother and I finished our breakfast. As the oldest child, my mother told me it was my job to get us to school in the morning – me, a third grader; my brother, a first grader. I should not have been left in charge; I had no knowledge of child development. As a daughter, I was obedient because rules made sense, but as a leader, I was a dictator.
Mornings in our apartment followed the same pattern. Every morning we had to be to school by nine, and it took at least ten minutes to get to school. The trouble was, my brother never wanted to turn off his favorite show, Transformers, until it was over. The show ended at 8:56 a.m., which meant every day we were late to school.
Every morning, I would slink into Mrs. Ortega’s third grade class while kids recited the pledge of allegiance. I tried to disguise my tardiness by ducking behind my peers, who were busy holding their right hands over their hearts, but each morning, my teacher marked me tardy, made me stay inside for recess, and told me she would have to call my mom if I didn’t start coming to school on time.
While this cycle of truancy repeated itself, every morning before school, I tried, in what I believed was a valiant attempt, to get my brother and me to school on time. While my brother rooted for Optimus Prime, I would begin my supervisory duties with a pronouncement: “It’s time to go to school.” If he ignored me, I would shift into yelling: “It’s time to go to school!” And when he did not listen again, I would clobber him.
I remember jumping on top of him and battering him using right and left hooks in quick, back-and-forth motions. I struck him in the gut, gut, gut, in his legs, legs, legs, wherever I could land a punch. I didn’t realize the tenuous nature of existence, how an abdominal organ could rupture. I was more concerned with short term consequences like getting in trouble. My critical thinking skills were not in full bloom. As an adult, my brother’s defiance makes sense to me: Why turn off the TV before the Autobots crushed the Decepticons?
I didn’t like being a bully. I felt ashamed and guilty. I knew violence contradicted the responsibilities I had of keeping my brother safe. And I felt terrible for beating him. I didn’t confess the morning beatings to my priest, where I gave my first confession during that third-grade year. I didn’t tell anyone. My brother didn’t tell anyone either, not even our mother.
Through writing and revising this scene, I could more accurately render my younger self. Here are some steps I took:
- Step One: I read my work as an objective outsider
I had to believe my point of view was worthy of understanding. I started by thinking of nine-year-old me as a character separate from who I am now. I would have sympathized with any other child in the same situation, so I applied that same sympathy to myself. Once I could entertain that the character was worthy of a rounded characterization, I was able to see that this was a precarious situation, and I was given far too much responsibility as a child.
- Step Two: I was fair to my persona
In the same way that I strive to be fair to all my characters, I had to be fair to my creative nonfiction protagonist. I had to consider all the reasons why my character abused her power and I explored them in the scene. Once I looked objectively at the material of my life as an outsider, I could honor the journey of that confused little girl. Pretending I was objective eventually turned into real compassion.
- Step Three: I cut out reflection that did not drive the narrative forward
This brings me to my last point, a part of me worried when writing this scene that if I did not address the topic of domestic violence, I was somehow condoning or justifying my behavior. As an adult, I strongly disagree with corporal punishment, and initially I wrote several paragraphs about this. I needed to write them, but I didn’t need to publish them in this story because they had no momentum.
I used my time-of-writing voice to illustrate compassion for the character of my child-self, who was growing and learning, just as I would any child who makes a mistake. I strove to show that I was aware of the injustice of hitting one’s brother, without having to apologize for it on the page, even though I have apologized both to myself and my brother for the way that I was. For me, the trick to developing a time-of-writing voice in memoir includes looking back and characterizing my protagonist with wisdom, not guilt, and directing my focus toward an audience larger than my family of origin.
Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; NPR’s This American Life; Sonora Review; Brain, Child; New Mexico English Journal; Ascent (this essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize); and others. See more of her work at jenniferjordanschaller.com.