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(This is a note I created as I struggle with choosing the narrator’s voice for a memoir on my early life. This memoir has been stalled by simply not having the right voice. I had a wrong narrator problem. I offer this rumination as a sample of the sort of writing you can place in a writer’s journal and of the sort of issue you must resolve.)
Many narrator possibilities
Whom to choose to narrate of the story of those years when I yearned to become myself? Whom can I trust to be both honest about the hesitations and subterfuges of my spirit and soul and yet be compassionate, full of support for the boy who was doing his best to respond to the calling of his psyche in an environment which favored thinking (but not intellectualism) over feeling, the mind over the emotions.
There are many candidates for narrator, and I stand uncertain before them, uncomfortable even about which to call forward to be considered. The choice is crucial because the narrator will have a tremendous influence on how the reader accepts or rejects the journey of my protagonist–the “me” who was inarticulate, unformed, so different from the “me” I have become. I hardly recognize that young man myself so how can I portray him for the future reader?
A hero’s journey
This story, as are all memoirs perhaps, to paraphrase Wordsworth, is about the father to the man I have become. This story I am unfolding before the reader is not only my story but I think it can be the reader’s story too, the story of a hero’s journey. It is so important in describing my life’s journey, and yet the story is so full of elements that not only do not have meaning for me any more but are also “off putting.” They may, however, still be important to the reader. How do I distance myself as I acknowledge that the reader may not want to be distanced? For this, I will need to choose a narrator who has compassion for us both, who can tell the truth of the boy hero without offending the reader who may be very different from me and still adhere to the world view I am rejecting?
This memoir is full of beliefs I have long ago let go from my life, as one lets go relationships that no longer are appropriate, of foods that one once loved but which now cause problems.
Who will narrate this story? Will it be the cynic who intersperses his text with cutting remarks, with “You won’t believe…” intrusions?
Will it be the sociologist who analyzes the data and presents a numbing factual delivery?
Will it be the sad survivor who rues the time lost in a world view that now seems not only meaningless by also dangerous?
Whom to choose?
Certainly it must be someone who is loving of the boy I once was! Someone who is willing to listen to the story without being too critical, listen to the details and take them in without worry of interpreting. Yet, within me, knowing the pervasiveness of the mythology that pervades my story, pervasiveness in society to the point that it is seen not as mythology but as the truth, how can I write about this construct in any other way but to underline that it is a construct?
The narrator must be neither an apologist nor an iconoclast. That is much to ask, but it is what I need.
Have you been working with the wrong narrator for your memoir?
- Think of several alternatives to your present narrator
- Evaluate if one works better than what you now have. For instance, would a
sardonic narrator work better than an angry narrator or vice versa?
- Have someone read your story and listen to what s/he tells you about the narrator.
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