So, What? The Reflective Voice in Memoir and Why It Matters
“I am the only one who can tell the story of my life and say what it means.”
“So, what?” I can still hear my writing friend Jon Kerstetter asking that question about the first packet of writing I submitted to our first creative nonfiction workshop at Ashland University. He went on to ask, with his affable laugh, Why do these stories matter? Why should we care?
Though I did not admit it at the time, his response smarted. Of course it did. Who wants to hear that the stories she’s painstakingly written about her immigrant grandparents were, well, lacking? That her deaf grandfather’s being born blue on one side of the Atlantic and her grandmother’s sneaking him a Coors in the nursing home where he spent his last days on the other side of the Atlantic were not enough?
I wondered, too, as I swallowed my pride, if perhaps his questions were an indication that the stories themselves were not page worthy, if my grandparents’ lives did not have what it takes to become memoir.
His questions, I now know, had nothing to do with the content of those stories—my grandparents’ lives were as rife with human experience as anyone else’s life. Rather, Jon’s intuitive response stemmed from his sense that an essential element of memoir was missing from my writing: a reflective voice.
The reflective voice in memoir is the writer’s stance now in relationship to the experience she had then. It’s her looking back on that experience from a distance of hindsight and making sense of her past on the page. Writing is, after all, about seeing, and the reflective voice allows you to see your past from a more nuanced view.
As Dorothy Allison says, “I am the only one who can tell the story of my life and say what it means.” The reflective voice reaches beneath the surface for the story’s deeper meaning. It says what the story means.
For me to recount the story of my grandmother smuggling a Coors into the nursing home is not enough. It captures the surface events but fails to bring the story’s deeper emotional truth to the page.
In other words, to simply tell your reader what happened falls short of writing memoir. You must roll up your sleeves and make sense of what happened, discover the deeper truth the memory carries. As Vivian Gornick puts it 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.”
The reflective narrator not only speaks the truth, she interprets it. And in doing so, she arrives at insight. It is the author’s insight—the wisdom she arrives at—that drives the story; indeed, the author’s insight becomes the story.
Here is an example from Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a highly reflective memoir about grief after losing her friend Caroline Knapp, author of the memoir Drinking: A Love Story, to lung cancer. Caldwell’s inclusion of her own alcoholism underscores the depth of the bond she shared with Knapp. Here she is looking back on her days of active alcoholism from where she is now:
“I clung to the belief that my drinking was part of the sine qua non of a new day—it was how women like me functioned in the world; it was an anesthetic for high-strung sensitivity and a lubricant for creativity. The alternate truth was far grimmer. Alcoholics—a word I couldn’t even think of without shame and terror—were broken people who had drunk themselves into a corner, and the only way out for them was to give up the drink. That was unthinkable to me, a gray, gray room without any highs or relief or even change, and so I clung for years to what I believed was the border between alcoholism and drinking to excess.”
She later summarizes her insight:
“I used to think this was an awful story—shameful and dramatic and sad. I don’t think that anymore. Now I just think it’s human, which is why I decided to tell it.”
We understand from Caldwell’s reflective passages that we are in the hands of a trustworthy, reflective narrator who will guide us to new understanding as she makes sense of her past experience. Implicit also in this reflection is the depth of the bond that Caldwell and Knapp—both recovering alcoholics—shared, and Caldwell’s understanding of Knapp at this core level.
The Coors that my grandmother smuggled into the nursing home carries a deeper truth, and my job as memoirist is to wrestle that truth onto the page by reflecting on its meaning.
Such a reflection might expose my grandfather’s love of beer—never called alcoholism that I can remember—for the rift it was in my grandparents’ marriage. It might also realize the moment my grandmother held that Coors to his lips as an act of tenderness, of surrender, the first time I’d ever seen her relaxed around beer in his presence.
Without this reflective voice, the Coors story lacks the impulse for understanding that drove me to the page in the first place. It remains a surface recounting of events, which leaves my readers scratching their heads and saying, “So, what?”