Writing the Memoir: Transcending the Limited Self

By: Marilyn L. Davis

Context, Content, and Constructing the Narrative

“Writers use narratives to select from everything there is, and make contexts by putting the pieces into relation; that’s what writers do, they make contexts.”― Paul Shepheard, How to Like Everything: A Utopia


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.In great memoirs, the writer does not get lost in their experiences.

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 first person knows. Click To Tweet

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? For the most part, the perspective of a nine-year-old 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.

Hindsight: Reviewing After the Fact

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, and may not be able to articulate the feelings.  I will be unaware of any lifelong ramifications of the experience I am having. The writing is often boring due to limited language and experiences. 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 knowing certain outcomes that you lacked at the time of the experience. 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.

Simple Story from the Limited Self

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. I understood that this letter was something I should not have read. This letter 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”.

Third Person: An All Seeing “I”

With that tacit approval of my father’s actions, I set up the environment where I could emotionally blackmail him for 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 in 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. Click To Tweet

You’re just writing with a different set of eyes. You are the version of you in the events, writing from the perspecitve 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.

The 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.

The first person perspective limits the events to closed, narrow, and deep writing while writing in the third person gives you room to show the breadth of the event.

Picture Prompts for the Third Person

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.


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing


More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:

Memoir: What’s Your Theme?

Memoir: White Rain, Penny Candy, and Crooked Politicians

Memory Lane: Memoir and Reverse Writing

The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Arcing, Enhancing and Advancing the Memoir

Memoir: Your Story, My Story, Our Stories

Writing a Memoir of Restoration, Renewal, and Rediscovery

Untangling the Messes: How Much Truth to Put in the Memoir?


  1. Hello Marilyn, It’s been such a long time since I started this WordPress account in order to read WordPress Blogs. I remember thinking I need an account to read the blogs here. I blog on Google Blogger so this account is inactive. Anyway, about the Memoir article:


    I just read it thoroughly and it resonated with my writing memoir experience. Changing Orbits is about the different phases of my life. I call them Orbits 1-5. Each Orbit, I use a variation of my given and adopted names so I write in the third person and yes, it helped to put some distance between the events and me. Thank you for all your sharing. I wish you continued success in all you do. Mena

    • Hi, Menakoo, thank you for your comment. I like the way you referenced the phases of your life. Changing orbits conjured many images for me, and that’s what good writers do. Is it published somewhere? Let me know.

  2. I’ve been thinking about basing some stories on my childhood adventures traveling the western United States. But I feel a little out of my depth before even beginning, since up until now I’ve exclusively been a nonfiction writer. Thanks for offering this perspective. Lots of food for thought!

    • Hi, Stephanie. Thanks for taking the time to comment. This is an excellent place to try out third person while you incorporate your experiences into the character. I’ve got several flash fiction posts here at Two Drops where I’ve done exactly that. And since it’s fiction, embellishing descriptions is allowed. That detached view broadens the horizon. Give it a try and let me know your results.

  3. Thanks for this interesting idea. I plan to try it on a memoir I recently wrote. I may have a more full understanding of what you mean once I’ve tried it!

    • Hi, Katie. Thanks for commenting. I’d like to know if your writing, in both first and third person, doesn’t produce varied perspectives for your event. Will you come back and let me know your outcome? Thanks.

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