By: Marilyn L. Davis
In great memoirs, the writer does not get lost in their experiences. While I know that many readers are already arguing the point of the first sentence, let me elaborate before you leave.
The memoir is deeply personal narrative, revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings. It’s a segment of your life written from your perspective, but without objectivity and emotional distance from that time, you’ll just get lost in a style of writing that reads like a diary entry.
Writing your memoir draft in a third person narrative allows you to detach enough to be writing as both writer and reader, and you’re expanding the experience to include others. You’ve now become the fly on the wall, or the bird soaring over the experiences to see more than the limited self – what the “I” can see.
For instance, I can’t see behind me. That’s a physical reality, but if I write about an experience in the third person, I can. What do you know now about yourself and others in the situation? A nine-year-old’s perspective on life is reduced to basic needs and wants, while the adult writers will find the subtle nuances in those needs and wants, and be able to elaborate on them, fleshing out the experiences, if written in the third person.
The saying “Hindsight is 20-20” is an apt expression for memoir writing, but too many writers get stuck in the self that was rather than the self that’s writing. If I’m writing about that nine-year-old, as the nine-year-old in the first person, I don’t have the luxury of including all the life experiences – love, loss, redemption, and rejections that I’ve experienced through the years since I was nine. It’s those other experiences that allow me to look back at her with a keener eye.
The other benefit of writing in the third person is that you introduce yourself to another voice. That same nine-year-old is limited by language, experiences, and emotional maturity. If written in the first person, I will write in simplistic terms for the most part. I will only know certain facts. I may or may not be able to articulate the feelings. I will be unaware of any lifelong ramifications of the experience I am having. I can be boring. And it is not solely because she’s nine, this is true for any age because it’s written from a limited self-perspective.
When you write your draft in the third person, you have the benefit of knowledge you lacked in the past. When you write your memoir today, you have the knowledge that great memoirs require. You can find the hidden meanings of seemingly insignificant details of the experience.
For instance, my father traveled and would bring home surprises for my sister and me. He called them our “trip-treasures.” Our job was to find them by unloading his suitcase. Sometimes it was a rock from a different state. One time it was a turtle he rescued on the side of the road; other times it was pamphlets about a different part of the county.
But we couldn’t just rummage through the clothes and find our present; we had to sort the clothes and put away the clean ones and put the dirty laundry in the hamper. Mom got a chore done, and we got a prize.
One day, there was a letter in the suitcase. Since my dad sent birthday cards to us when he wasn’t home for our celebration, I opened it thinking he’d written something on the road and had forgotten to address and mail it. It was from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize. She was professing her love for my dad.
Even at nine, I understood that this letter was something I should not have read. I also understood that it would upset my mother. I didn’t need to debate what to do; I simply handed the letter back to my father and told him that, “Mom doesn’t need to see this”. I had no idea that I was setting up emotional blackmail that I used for four more years to get what I wanted from my father. What it also did was give my father my permission to continue his affair without even understanding that I was now complicit.
A third person narrative of this event provides the opportunity for more emotional truth. Finding the letter that day, I didn’t just give dad permission, I also gave him understanding. My mother and I didn’t get along, and in my nine-year old mind, if I was an adult, like my dad, I would choose someone else to love, or in my case, another mother. But I was nine and couldn’t – he could.
When you write from the perspective of the third person, you can explore the events much like Scrooge, revisiting them from various perspectives, all feasible and truthful, as good memoirs should be. You’re just writing with a different set of eyes. You are the version of you in the events, writing from the version of you at the keyboard with all your hard-won knowledge. Let each have their voice, perceptions, and feelings, and you might find your best memoir writing experience.
Third person gives you the freedom to let time and distance from the event change circumstances in subtle and interesting ways. It’s the aerial view. It broadens the event from multiple perspectives. First person limits the events to a closed, narrow, and deep perspective, while third person gives you room to show the breadth of the event.
Think of a close-up photograph versus a panoramic view that includes that same person.
For example, let’s imagine the bride in the above photos. It’s her wedding day, – full of hope, love, and wonder – it’s the beginning of the shift in her relationship from fiance to wife. You can see her smile, the special occasion dress, her glow.
Now, pan out to include the pictures that might show the jealous sister who covets the husband and dated him prior. What lurks in the future? Is the husband stealing sidelong glances at the sister? Is the tug of war a metaphor and foreshadowing the future for our blissful bride? Only with time, will that one photo gives us clues to the future.
As an exercise, take any event from your life and, being mindful of age, vocabulary, emotional maturity, and lack of knowledge, write it in the first person.
Then, write it in the third person, and see if you don’t transcend your limited self.
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