“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?”
Excellent point and good examples to illustrate. I think the reflective voice takes time to cultivate. But it helps to be alerted to its presence so that when reading other memoirs, we SEE and HEAR the voice.
Hi, Shirley. I so agree that the reflective voice takes time and practice to cultivate, and no small amount of self-awareness. I think of it as “coming into one’s own” both on the page and off the page. And, yes, it is so helpful to see and hear it in other memoirs! What a difference it makes. Thanks so much for posting your comment! Best, Marilyn
I love the way you share and in that sharing nudge us to the goal line.
My friends and family always accuse me of digging too deep into the meaning of everything. Who knew reflective writing would provide a positive spin to both my thoughts, memories and desire to share on paper what I don’t seem to be able to accomplish orally. Thanks for a wonderful piece full of your teachings and clarity in example.
What a beautiful comment, Cis. Memoir gives you full permission to dig deep, right past the personal to the universal truths at the core of your experience. And, I wonder if we come from the same family! Mine, too, in the digging-too-deep department. Looking so forward to your memoir. Warm best, M
Thank you for a most edifying look at the reflective voice. As I’m slogging through my memoir in progress, it was timely to have this article in my inbox telling me what I now know is lacking from my storytelling pen. Tucking this away in Evernote for continual referencing.
Hi, Sherrey. Isn’t it amazing how insight into the reflective voice can crack your “storytelling pen” wide open? I’m so glad this article found you when it did. What’s your memoir about, if you feel like sharing? To your reflective voice, Marilyn
enjoyed this–I’m just humbled constantly at how long it can take to grow a thick enough skin to take criticism…but, probably, rightly so. Takes a lot to 1) live the life 2) write it down for ourselves 3) shape it for others 4) re-tackle with that “so what” distance towards revision. The exciting part is that if we make it to 4…I know for me, I’m so happy with the words falling away to allow core images to appear I could do a happy dance. I still don’t know if others will care, but I sense that I’m growing, and it is worth it. Everything that came before was scaffolding…so fun to tear it back down. Great post.
Tania, I love this: “I sense that I’m growing, and it is worth it. Everything that came before was scaffolding…so fun to tear it back down again.” What an excellent reminder of the truth we do find in the images that remain once we let the extraneous words fall away. You kinda make that part sound effortless, which I like and am going to take with me into my own writing today! Best best to you, M
Great article. I find myself walking a precarious line between over-explaining emotion (wait–don’t assume your readers are stupid!) and allowing my reflective voice to simply “show.” Memoir is tricky business. I want so badly for my readers to understand all of the emotions involved in the world of adoption, search and reunion (rejection, anger, hope, yearning, frustration, surprise . . .)–I should trust my reflective voice that they will understand.
Hi, Laureen. What an insightful comment. I can FEEL your passion for your topic. And, indeed, when you trust your reflective voice not only will your readers understand but you, too, will come to an even clearer understanding of your fascinating material. I attended a panel on adoption at AWP two years ago and one of the panelists, Meredith Hall, pointed out that adoption stories can be hard to get published because adoption is still considered to be a woman’s story and women’s stories are still considered small stories. I talk about this in my Writing Our Grandmothers, Discovering Ourselves: Women, Silence, and Voice workshop, which happens to be coming up on this Tuesday. Are you planning to attend?
Good illustrations on the reflective voice. I hadn’t really thought about it,, but intuitively have used it in the memoir I am writing. As an illustration, I had an imaginary monster in my childhood (of which I was duly terrorized) but later in life I used to refer to that monster when there was something I felt I couldn’t do. He influenced my whole life. Great article.
Thanks, Betty. So good to hear from you, and I love that you are intuitively using your reflective voice! Do you mean you would refer to that monster to help you do the things you felt you couldn’t do? So fascinating how an imaginary monster from childhood can connect you to who you are today.Thank you for leaving this comment! All best, Marilyn
Great perspective, I am in the midst of the first draft of my memoir, do you intersperse the reflective voice, at the end or written in the majority of the story? I am getting my voice on paper in the first draft and starting to go back to take a deeper more meaningful look at what i am writing.
Hi, Lee. What a great question about where to incorporate reflection into your memoir. Actually, it’s possible to do it both ways that you mention–either separate by including the reflective voice at the end of a chapter, for example, or by “weaving together” the narrative and the reflective voices so that they are integrated and somewhat seamless. Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is an excellent example of the latter. Best to you, Marilyn