Throwing My Voice(s) in Fiction and Memoir

In my last post, a question and answer session about my soon-to-be released novel, Break the Skin, that novelist Dani Shapiro conducted for, I respond to a question about how the experience of writing a novel differs for me than what happens when I write memoir. I say that the memoir perhaps allows me to do some things with voice that I don’t necessarily do in a novel. A kind reader has asked me to say more about that issue of voice in the memoir and the novel, and I’m glad to try to say more that will be useful.

First, I should admit that this is a question I chase around quite often, this matter of how voice differs in fiction and nonfiction, and to be more specific how it differs in a first-person piece of fiction and a piece of memoir. I’m always tempted to go for the easy answer, which is, well, of course, the memoir calls for a more reflective voice, the voice of the writer at his or her desk interpreting, interrogating, and trying to make sense of experience, trying, that is, to figure out what it all means. I can think of pieces of memoir, however, where the reflective voice  is minimal or nonexistent. Barry Lopez’s “Murder” provides one such example, this tersely narrated tale of the day a woman who was a stranger to Lopez asked him to murder her husband. Lopez conveys the meaning of the episode through description, action, and his thoughts at the time in the midst of the experience. “I sensed a border I did not know,” he says.

At the same time, I can think of plenty of examples of first-person fiction in which the narrator puts the reflective voice to work in much the same way that the writer of memoir often does. Nick Carraway, for example, looking back on and trying to make sense of the time he spent with Jay Gatsby, interrogating not only his own life but that of Gatsby and of Daisy and Tom and Jordan Baker. “In my younger and more vulnerable years,” Nick says in the opening line of the book, “my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” We understand right away that the story is coming to us through a narrator who occupies a position somewhere in the future from the events of the novel’s dramatic present. A narrator, in other words, looking back upon a portion of his life in an attempt to interpret it and make it mean something. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn,” Nick says of Gatsby after his death, “and his dream [to reclaim Daisy’s love] must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” This is clearly an example of the narrator’s reflective voice, the voice of experience. It’s the voice that we expect in a memoir.

So, to return to the original question, what can I do with voice in memoir that I don’t necessarily do in a first-person novel? Let’s see if I can throw out some thoughts to see what thoughts of your own they might provoke. I’ll be thinking out loud here and inviting you to think along with me. I’ll confess right away that I reserve the right to ultimately decide that nothing I’m about to say is actually true.

1.  My voice can be extremely earnest in a memoir, its directness and intensity and “me-ness” (for lack of a better term), more readily accepted than such a voice sometimes is in a novel where irony is often the thing that tempers the overly urgent and reflective response to experience.

2.  I can live within that reflective voice longer and more intensely in a memoir. I can let action, and character, and image, and dialogue wait for me as long as I prove to be interesting in those “voice of experience” passages.

3.  I can be more people (more parts of my persona) in that reflective voice in the memoir as opposed to the first-person narrator who is usually more distinctly divided between “before” and “after” in a novel. Perhaps the memoir form more clearly announces the layers of the narrator’s persona, and, as a result, the voice becomes more textured, made up of more sounds coming from a number of different aspects of the narrator’s character.

As I said, I’m not sure that my observations have any validity to them. I’d certainly be interested in other people’s thoughts about voice in memoir and how it differs from that of a first-person piece of fiction. I’m pretty sure, though, about how writing in the two forms seems different to me when I think about this issue of voice. Things slow down for me in memoir. The form gives me permission to linger over small details and large actions as well. My voice becomes more textured with nuances of tones and personae. It embraces and gives full throat to the person who lives simultaneously within the experience being narrated and the various, countless positions I occupy beyond that experience. To me, my voice in memoir more readily gives expression to the multiple pieces of myself that create it, whereas in a piece of fiction there seems to be a more demarcated distinction between the voice of the character within the narrative sequence and the voice-over of the storyteller relating that tale.





  1. […] his FULL POST and his NEW NOVEL, Break the […]

  2. Mary McIntyre on May 27, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Your post came at a good time for me. I’ve been blogging for a year, and recently experimented with stories in my natural storytelling voice. I got down off my high horse of long-windedness and wrote from the heart – and had good responses because of it.

    I’m writing a family memoir and your advice about the reflective voice makes sense to me. In the draft stage a reflective voice can ramble, explore, “perhaps” story lines that have no clear explanation. Your choice of the word “earnest” rings true. I believe your voice comes out of the exploration of your feelings and how you interpret them honestly for readers. You voice connects you, bonds you, validates them.

    • Lee Martin on May 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      Mary, thank so much for your comment. I agree with you that once the intimate and earnest voice clicks in the exploration becomes more vibrant and significant. I wish you all the best with your family memoir.

  3. Richard Gilbert on May 27, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Thanks, Lee, for following up and for this stimulating post. I love the Gatsby example, a book I return to often just because I adore it, and which lately has taken on added resonance because I am writing a memoir. Carroway says some fascinating things about himself, almost aphorisms, but unlike a memoir he does not explore his experience or himself. Well, he does, as if incidentally, in telling the story of Gatsby. Fascinating to think how it would go if Gatsby were a memoir by Carroway, about himself and this amazing thing that happened when he was young. He’d surely have to reflect, to go beneath his pithy phrases about himself.

    • Lee Martin on May 27, 2011 at 7:12 pm

      Richard, I’m glad the Gatsby example proved useful to you. I think you’ve hit on something in your post about how in memoir the voice allows access to the self.

  4. Cindy Gaillard on May 27, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Lee – since the last few months I have been struggling with voice in my work, this post comes at a significant time for me. Thanks for giving me some points to consider. My response is to say that I also have experienced the memoir voice as a voice that can include the patina of other significant people in my life and how they have influenced my thoughts and perceptions. Case in point – the voice in my current work is a mixture of me and my grandmother (who has absolutely nothing to do with the story). She gives me love and acceptance with each and every sentence. It is that love that allows me to see myself with compassion. Without her, I don’t think I could be nearly as lovingly objective, or as humorous and certainly not as accepting as I am normally self-judgmental. So, voice in a memoir to me has also represents those people who can know my best self leeched of ego and the trappings of the lone self typing away.

    • Lee Martin on May 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      Cindy, I really appreciate your comment. I love what you have to say about your voice in the memoir containing the voices of others. Talk do you soon. I got your pages today.

  5. Mardi Link on May 28, 2011 at 10:25 am

    What a concise way of articulating voice in memoir. I really like the way you describe the latitude the memoirist has to make the reader wait for action while the reflective voice holds court, as long as that reflective voice maintains the reader’s interest. That’s the essential exchange between reader and memoirist I think. The very best memoirs do this so well, that it can become almost invisible. I’m thinking specifically of Joan Didion.

    • Lee Martin on May 28, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Such a good point about how in the best memoirs that switch from narrative to reflection or meditation doesn’t call attention to itself, becoming part of the experience that we expect from the form. Thanks so much for taking the time to make this insightful comment.

  6. Jean on May 28, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Thanks for this post. I find myself, now in the mucky swamp waters of rewriting a memoir that will not go away (although I wish it would). In those dark waters, I want to navigate in a channel carefully between irony and earnestness, port and starboard. For me, this book, neither the ironic voice nor the earnest voice will quite tell the story right. I find myself wanting what I might call the poetic voice — it’s transporting, magical, a little strange, a lot tangible. It’s a voice that allows for the possibility of recalling in frank detail, with a careful tinge of awe, the transcendent moments of ordinary life. I want that magic of poetry in the nonfiction prose, to transport the reader somewhere different, new. But to make the different and new completely believable.

    I think that’s why write memoir in the first place — my story is mine in its particulars, but it becomes more than mine if I tell it right. Other people have done what I have done, and maybe they don’t speak of it, because it’s not polite or it’s not nice or it’s not what good people talk about. Still, there it is. A life lived, with all its flaws. If I tell my story right, it becomes the reader’s story too. An imperfect life revealed, or transformed, or both, into “some shape of beauty [that] moves away the pall from our dark spirits.”

    Okay, so maybe the poetic voice is a *cousin* to the earnest voice. I could see Earnest and Poetic sitting next to each other at a family picnic. They’d get along. Earnest with his potato chips. Poetic with his asparagus salad. They’d have things to talk about. But they’d be shaking their heads, kindly of course, at Poetic’s half brother Irony (spitting watermelon seeds), and his date Posturing (who has had one too many wine coolers and is just now climbing up on the picnic table to give a little speech). I think I want to be at that picnic…

    • Lee Martin on May 28, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      Jean, thanks so much for reminding me of Cousin Poetic Voice. I certainly didn’t mean to leave him (or her?) out of the family picnic. Do you know Amy Benson’s memoir, THE SPARKLING-EYED BOY? I think that’s a great example of what you’re talking about. That blend of Cousin Earnest, Cousin Poetic, and Cousin Ironic. A happy family reunion! Good luck with the memoir. If it won’t leave you alone, you have no choice but to tame it.

  7. Jean on May 29, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I like the idea of “taming” a piece of writing. Sounds just right. And I’ll look for that memoir — thanks!

  8. […] post on May 26, “Throwing My Voice(s) in Fiction and Memoir,” is especially pertinent to those of us who are writing in either (or both) of these genres. I […]

  9. Jean LeBlanc on April 13, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Sorry to be late for class…

    I’ve been puzzling the use of reflection since my critique partners all say they want more “what I was feeling” in my story.

    So I see these kinds of reflections:

    In the moment: What was I thinking as I pulled the trigger all those years ago?
    (Damn that was loud. I hope I did burst an eardrum.)

    Post Game Analysis: Looking back after all these years, what do I make of my action?
    (He had to die. There was no other possible outcome and I’m glad he did.)

    Out Of Body: Becoming omniscient viewer of actions that I am part of.
    (The scene transitioned into slow motion and I could see the two of us from above as she slipped off her blouse and revealed the empty spot where her breast had been. What was I supposed to say? Why did no one prepare me for this moment? I have to get this right.)

    In theater it’s like stepping outside the scene and commenting to the audience. If you followed “House Of Cards” on Netflix you saw the Main Character turn to the viewing audience and explain what he was doing with great effect. This technique has potential to create an intimate relationship with the reader, like the two of you are insiders, especially in memoir, so I think I’m going to expand it.

    My hunch is that pacing will be important, i.e., not such a break in rhythm as to be a distraction.

    I’ve been using italics to signal this shift in perspective. I decided to make sure and include these kinds of observations frequently enough so the reader understands this is part of my story telling technique and isn’t surprised. Maybe it’s a shift of “voice,” except it’s all first person.

    Any thoughts or suggestions welcome.


    • Jean LeBlanc on April 13, 2014 at 4:17 pm

      Actually, “didn’t” burst an eardrum… but that’s why we have copy editors, right?

      • Lee Martin on April 13, 2014 at 7:10 pm

        That’s right, Jean! 🙂

      • Lee Martin on April 13, 2014 at 7:16 pm

        Jean, I think it’s more a shift of voice. When writing a memoir, there are a number of different identities of the narrator at work, but in the simplest terms, there’s the participant in the events, and then there’s the writer at her desk doing the narrating, reflecting, interrogating, interpreting, etc. Vivian Gornick, in THE SITUATION AND THE STORY, talks about how each memoir has it’s situation, or in other words, the thing that happened, and it also has its story, or in other words, the think the writer has come to the page to explore. I often advise my students to write from a position of not knowing. What do you not know about the why’s of your own behavior, or of someone else’s? What are you trying to figure out by writing this memoir. The shift from the participant’s perspective to what you’ve correctly identified as the voice-over is how writers of memoir balance the depicting of events from the past with the thinking about what those events mean. I hope this helps. Take good care–Lee

Leave a Comment