October 20, 2020 § 16 Comments
It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?
Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.
What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?
Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
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.
Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.
The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:
By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.
There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.
Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.
Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:
The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.
The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.
You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:
[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”
Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.
Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?
Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?
The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.