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The Wrong Point of View in a Memoir Can Throw the Story

Point of view in a memoir can cause a major problem

In 1996 and 1997, I composed about 200 pages of a memoir of my high school years and then it wasn’t going anywhere more than where it had been—mired in facts and details with no spirit.

I merely stored it in various computers for years.

In the fall of 2013, I completed my mother’s memoir (We Were Not Spoiled). Because I was looking for a writing project I might devote myself to next, I picked up the high-school memoir.

(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—there was none of that whatsoever. I am writing about my life there between 1960 and 1964 and how it shaped me. This theme of identity is usual stuff for a memoir, but the setting is exotic in many ways and not at all usual. Almost none of you who are reading this have “been there”—trust me.)

Suddenly, after more than a decade and a half, the memoir spoke to me again!

“Write me! Write me!” it shouted. The text seemed “alive” again.

I have been revising this memoir for almost a year. It is one of the projects that I am working on now—in addition to the Memoir

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The point of view in a memoir has to be right. This one wasn’t.

I had put off completing the book because I could not resolve its thematic problems. The big challenge for me was writing about the religious aspects of the life I lived then. At the time, I was what you would call religious, but today, I am not at all religious. (I will spare you the “but, I’m spiritual” rap—which, of course, I am).

It felt dishonest to me to write about that time as if I were still a Christian. Now, you and I both know that I cannot write about seminary life without writing about the organized religion—Catholicism—that animated that life and was the raison d’etre for much of what existed. How else to justify the austere life we lived? Certainly it was why I was there. But…

I was an adolescent with an adolescent’s unformed sensibility. What did I know of projection and cultural reinforcement of religious values (e.g., currently, working class churches not knowing they are speaking from their cultural biases [working class] preach against homosexuality while more sophisticated churches with a more sophisticated membership ordain gay clergy).

Changing point of view in a memoir

The narrator, after a long stint as an adolescent stuck in adolescent thinking (which is one reason I believe the memoir remained such a long time unfinished in my computer), began to mature and I found myself feeling comfortable writing both the thoughts of the adult I am now and writing the feelings of the adolescent I was then.

This comfort with duality opened the text up to a certain distancing between the narrator and the character, and with this distancing came what I have come to feel was the missing link to complete the manuscript. (For a sampling of this memoir in blog posts, click here.)

The adult narrator is able to respect the adolescent’s beliefs, convictions and way of life while at the same time making observations which I feel bring to the book to a more meaningful insight. I am better able to answer the question of “What was going on in this memoir?”

(This is another in a series of blog posts on point of view. For more on the  discussion, click here.)

Action steps

Look at what you are currently writing and explore how point of view in a memoir—specifically: your memoir—can be changed for the better. Is that the case with you?

  • How can you rethink the narrator’s point of view so that his/her perspective serves the story better?
  • Is there dissonance between the point of view of the narrator and the main character (usually you at some other time in your life)? How can you respect both?
  • Have you made disparaging remarks about the character? Does this feel permissible to you?

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