Finding the “I” Character in Memoir

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

As a teacher of memoir since before the invention of the lightbulb, one challenge I see writers struggle with consistently is how to make the “I” on the page a fully living, breathing, walking and talking character. And even more important, how to make that “I” someone the reader will want to spend time with, over ten or 250 pages.

Phillip Lopate aptly points out that the problem for writers is thinking that the ‘I’ we type onto the page “is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past…” Instead, Lopate warns, all readers will actually see in the letter ‘I’ is “a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.”

I know this problem well, because it remains an issue for me, in my own early drafts. It is maddeningly difficult to escape my own mind, one in which the mere thought of myself brings up this complex, swirling, tumbling wealth of memories and associations. What is needed, however, is to somehow enter the mindset of an anonymous reader, one who knows virtually nothing about me.

Yet it is not enough to merely tell the reader who I am. Why should a reader believe me, of all people? Why would you believe some stranger in a Starbucks who wandered up to your table and began explaining his positive traits, unjust obstacles, and charming little idiosyncrasies? The natural reaction to the fellow in the coffee shop is to think, “Sure buddy, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Readers aren’t that different.

On Wednesday of next week, Feb. 24th, from 1 to 2:15 pm, I’ll be exploring the various ways we can craft a compelling “I” onto the memoir page, and how that person becomes a rounded, engaging, and believable presence. The 75-minute Zoom webinar, hosted by the wonderful Jane Friedman, will focus on:

  • Why characterization is critical
  • How the ways in which we assess people in “real life” transfer to how readers assess us on the page
  • What to reveal, and what to keep hidden   
  • The importance of compassion when writing about others, but also when writing about the self
  • How to gain the reader’s trust through honesty and fairness about yourself and your adversaries (And the surprising way sharing your own faults affects the reader!)

The webinar is useful for writes at all levels,  

  • When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021
  • Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
  • Fee: $25

Registration and more information here.

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§ 2 Responses to Finding the “I” Character in Memoir

  • geodutton says:

    I’ve written memoirs, essays, and stories, though currently am mainly a novelist who occasionally blogs. Seems to me that communicating who’s hiding behind that skinny pole is pretty much the same for me, except “I” is spelled he, she, or they. It doesn’t matter how much of oneself an author put into a character; the sorrows and joys, defeats and victories, pride and shamefulness, all have to come from somewhere in the writer’s experience.

    What’s different is that some of that experience is bound to be vicarious for a fictionalist, whereas for the memoirist indirect experience probably should be played down. But rounding out a character occurs in much of the same way, methinks. Given that, there might be things for folks like me to chew on in this webinar. Thanks for doing it.

  • Spot-on article. I’m revising my memoir and It’s a continual challenge to re-imagine and create my character from a blank slate. Thanks!

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