A narrator problem can ruin a memoir.
In 1996 and 1997, I composed about 200 pages of a memoir about my high school years and then could not continue. It was blocked; I was blocked. As a result, I stored the manuscript in various computers for all the while since then.
Recently, having completed my mother’s memoir (We Were Not Spoiled), I was looking for a personal writing project I might devote myself to. The high school memoir as always in the back of my mind—had been for years. As I picked it up to peruse it, completing it seemed a next project. It is what I am working on now.
Lest you think that I went to a high school like yours, let me assure you that I did not. I attended a Catholic high school seminary. No, I’m not writing about sexual shenanigans—sorry! To tabloid lover everywhere, there were no shenanigans whatsoever—but I am writing about my life in the high school seminar and how it shaped me. This theme of identity is usual stuff for a memoir, but the setting of my life then was exotic in many ways and not at all usual.
What was my narrator problem?
I had put off completing the book because I could not resolve its thematic challenge—ultimately a narrator problem. The big block for me was writing about the religious aspects of the life I lived then. I wanted respect but not endorse the religious life I had known.
At the time, I was what you would call religious. The whole construct made sense to me or at least I accepted it without challenging it, but today, I am not at all religious. It felt dishonest to me to write as if I were still an adherent, as if I believed in the fundamental tenets of Christianity as anything but myth, as often meaningful imagery or metaphor of reality but not the fundamental truth—merely a metaphorical truth.
Now, you and I both know that I cannot write about seminary life without writing about the organized religion—and having a position—that animated that life and was the raison d’être for much of what I lived. I was a firm believer then and continued so for a number of years beyond high school.
How did I resolve my narrator problem?
I was an adolescent with an adolescent’s unformed sensibility. What did I know of projection and cultural prejudices informing religious values and insecurities (well, I lived “insecurities” rather intensely but it was without great awareness). The narrator, after a long stint as an adolescent which is one reason I believe the memoir got stuck in my computer’s documents, began to age, and I found myself writing as the adult I am now. This opened the text up to a certain distancing, and with this distancing, came what I have come to discern as the missing link to being able to complete the manuscript.
The adult narrator respects the adolescent’s beliefs, convictions and way of life while at the same time making observations which I feel bring the book to a deeper meaning to a theme which informs it.
In resolving the challenge of my narrator problem, I was able to continue writing—but not until then.
We have helped many people whose lives demanded to be recorded but who themselves were not writers to create interesting and well-written memoirs.
We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.
Over time, your story develops into a memoir—one that you have shaped at every stage of the writing process.
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