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 Amazon.com, 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.