In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.
Last week I was honored to be the guest on National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) December roundtable discussion to talk about the reflective voice in memoir. But the hour went by so fast—the reflective voice is a big topic!—that we did not have time to do the writing exercise I had up my sleeve.
And if there is one way to hone your reflective voice, it is to practice.
So, let’s write, shall we?
First, a few words about the reflective voice, which you can read more about here.
The reflective voice in memoir is the writer’s stance now in relationship to the experience she had then. It’s her now-self looking back on her then-self and making sense of her past experience.
The reflective voice ultimately explores the questions, “What is this story really about? What is its deeper meaning?”
Reflection takes you beneath the surface situation to the heart of your story’s themes and universal truths.
I must have been twelve when my father, my mother, and I participated in the Shoreham to Littlehampton yacht race. Actually, I did that race more than once, but I’m talking about the only time my mother came along—the time that turned into full-blown family story.
The way I see it, the story is about my mother’s lifelong terror of the sea and my father’s pigheadedness. Or perhaps it is about the absurd pretenses of the British middle class, particularly the male of that species, whose dignity must be preserved at all costs. It might be in part about those costs—about the price some of us paid for keeping up that pretense. It might, too, be about a child’s lifelong yearning to save her mother. Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell what happened on the day of the race, the telling is also about the creation of myth and the fallibility of memory. Memory lurking in the shadow of myth, waiting to be lost in the dark.
It should have been an easy day’s sail…
Notice how Barrington’s second paragraph is pure reflection—“The way I see it [now]…”—sandwiched between two paragraphs of narration, and how the middle, reflective paragraph takes us beneath the surface of her tale.
I drew on Barrington’s reflective paragraph to create the scaffolding of the exercise below, which I teach in my Excavate Your Truth/Free Your Voice class.
(If you’ve already taken Excavate Your Truth, trust me: this exercise is worth repeating. Double-worth.)
This 5-Step writing exercise is designed to help you reflect on an experience in your life from a number of vantage points so that you create a multifaceted view into the deeper meaning the experience holds.
A Backwards Glance: Now-Self, Meet Then-Self
Think of a “reflection worthy” memory or experience that left a lasting impression on you. Write this event down in a sentence or two. For example, “When I was a child growing up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, my mother stocked our freezer with Sunbeam bread, which my grandmother called poison.”
Then, in five-minute increments, finish the sentence starters below. When the timer buzzes, move directly to the next step. The time limit will nudge your mind to “shift gears” and seek a new perspective into the material as you delve into the next step.
Step 1. “The way I see it, the story is about…” 5 mins.
Step 2. “Or perhaps it is about…” 5 mins.
Step 3. “It might be in part about…” 5 mins.
Step 4. “It might too be about…” 5 mins.
Step 5. “Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell what happened, the telling is also about…” 5 mins.
How was it? Read your work aloud to yourself so that you can really hear the depth and power of your reflective voice. Are you surprised by the multi-faceted dimension of your reflection? Let us know in the comments below. I would love to hear an insight you gained into your own truth.
Interested in the NAMW roundtable discussion on the reflective voice? Take a listen here (scroll down to find it).