Don’t expect to know your metaphors before you begin to write. This is what you’ll discover as you write.
Sue William Silverman
Writing memoir is an act of self-discovery. And the discovery that happens during the writing often reveals the deeper story of the self. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the real story in every memoir, regardless of its topic, is the transformation of the self.
But that self does not exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by a world during a particular period of time and reflects the world that shaped it.
As Vivan Gornick says:
The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.
Grounding your narrator-self in her world not only serves to develop your narrator’s character but also engages your reader with your narrator through the details of the world that shaped her.
I like the way Sue William Silverman puts it in Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir in a chapter titled “Mock Moons and Metaphor: Crafting Memoir into Art”:
Memoir is not simply a mirrored image of oneself. Rather, you, as a memoirist, examine yourself as if in the glass of a window: yes, you see yourself, but you also witness a larger world outside—one that’s superimposed over your reflection.
Write as if you’re looking not into a mirror but out of a window. If you do, your story, your personal metaphors, will be cast upon a wider world, upon the stories of others. It’s as if you are layering the self onto the world—the self onto family, culture, society, history—onto issues larger than just yourself.
Last week I assigned “Mock Moons and Metaphor” to a client in my mentoring program. She’s working on a brief memoir essay that takes place in a waiting room in Colorado where her then twenty-something self sits with her Native American mother, whom the narrator was separated from as a child.
My client intuitively wrote her narrator’s view of the San De Cristo mountain range through the window of the waiting room, where she learns a surprising truth that casts her childhood separation from her mother into a new, life-changing light.
Her perception of those mountains as she sees them—“fault lines, eons ago, heaved and parted”—becomes a metaphor for her personal history, which expands to include her family’s history: generations of Native American daughters separated from their mothers, which illuminates an even larger history: Native Americans dispossessed of the very land the narrator sees out the window.
Her view out that window reflects her internal landscape as it connects her—and her reader—to a much larger history.
Rereading “Mock Moons and Metaphors” got me to thinking about my own memoir, too; in particular, the window in my grandfather’s bedroom in the Bronx.
It was a double casement window that opened out. As a child I was fascinated by the window cranks. My grandmother let me turn them when we aired Boppa’s pillow out. I loved watching the windows open as I turned the cranks, watching Grandma position the edge of the pillow on the sill, then turning the crank until the window closed just enough to secure the pillow in place.
Boppa’s window appears in a number of key scenes in my memoir at different periods of time. But it is less the view my child narrator sees out that window than the sounds she hears coming through it that engage my reader: cheers of neighborhood boys playing stick ball on Siegfried Place, the squeal of a car taking the turn on Siegfried too fast, another car screeching its breaks, the roar of an airplane shaking the bookshelves on either side of the casement window, the neighbors at the end of the block—Toni’s mother, Paula’s father—shouting at each other across their fence. And farther away, beyond these feuding neighbors, beneath the overpass that led to Boppa’s butcher shop, the distant, steady whoosh of cars travelling Pelham Parkway.
In “Mock Moons and Metaphors,” Silverman writes:
When writing memoir, it’s as if you observe yourself in a window, both during the day as well as at night, in order to see yourself and your world from different perspectives: dark and light; surfaces and interiors.
The sounds from Boppa’s window would have been very different at night. And not just any night: the night when I was five and woke to Boppa on top of me. Later, as I lay there frozen, I tuned into the whoosh of the cars on Pelham Parkway coming through the open casement window.
Absent the daytime sounds of Siegfried Place, the whoosh sounded closer, as if my conch shell, which was at home in Pennsylvania in the room I shared with my older sister, were pressed to my ear here in the Bronx: I heard in that whoosh not cars but the ocean.
My young narrator’s “auditory view” from that window as she hears it becomes a metaphor for her internal experience: her need for the safety and familiarity of home, within reach of her conch shell and her sister.
Notice how the metaphor extends the meaning of her experience: the ocean that she hears is a benevolent force of nature that promises the splash of waves but not without the constant threat of drowning.
By writing what my young narrator hears in the sound of the Pelham Parkway we learn how she’s faring internally, what she yearns for in that moment. Through her auditory perception, we engage with her at the level of her deepest need.
Is there a window in your memoir or in a memoir essay you’ve got in the works that could provide a view into your narrator’s interior via her view out that window?
Set your timer for 10 minutes and write that view as it appears in daylight.
Then set your timer for another 10 and write the view from the same window at night.
Don’t limit your narrator’s view to the sense of sight. View the landscape outside that window through all of her senses. And let the view out pull your reader in.