Releasing Yourself from the “I” in Memoir
It’s a snowy day here in central Ohio which has me thinking about the intricacies of the flakes. We all know that no two are alike, and so it is for the experiences we present in a memoir. Each moment has various aspects, angles, and patterns. Our hearts and minds convince us we’ve accurately recalled, and then dramatized, a single moment from our memory. We’ve presented the truth of the matter, but, alas, truth, as we also know, can be a slippery slope. There’s always something more to know. Releasing ourselves from the limits of the upright pronoun, “I,” can bring truths to light that we might otherwise miss.
Here’s a writing exercise, then, that invites you to examine a memory from a vantage point other than the first-person perspective that’s the default mode for most memoirs.
Identify a moment when you felt like you were under the microscope. Maybe you remember the frightening experience of speaking in class, or playing in your first band concert, or being the new kid at school, or standing along the road after your first car accident. Any moment when you felt like you were under the gaze of others will do. Dramatize that moment using the first-person. Then. . .
. . .change the perspective. Use one of the following strategies, or even try them all.
Use a second-person point of view. Note what happens when you substitute “you” for “I.” What do you learn about the memory you’re recalling because of the slight remove the second-person gives you. Does it, perhaps, lead to an objectivity that may have been missing from the more subjective first-person point of view?
Use a third-person point of view. As with the second-person, see what happens when you write about yourself in the third-person. To increase the objectivity, try pairing the third-person with the present tense. Again, see what this strategy brings to your attention about the experience you’re presenting.
Switch your perspective. You can also find a different lens through which to view your past experience by writing about it from the point of view of someone other than you. Imagine someone from those observing you. This can be a singular person, or it can be the collective whole. What do you imagine they thought as they looked at you? Likewise, what do you imagine they didn’t know versus what they thought they knew?
The objective with this exercise is to deepen your understanding of a particular moment by taking yourself out of that moment, so you’ll have the distance you need to be able to see more clearly. Brenda Miller, in an article, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the October/November issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, talks about what she calls “inadvertent revelations,” that emerge organically when a writer utilizes a preset form such as the hermit-crab essay, the braided essay, or the flash form. These “inadvertent revelations” are little grains of truth (or, in keeping with the central metaphor of this post, individual snowflakes) that might remain hidden if the writers hadn’t used form to adjust the lens through which they looked at specific moments from their pasts. The same is true for trying a different perspective as I’ve suggested above. Writers of memoir are always mining experience for what they didn’t know at the time. Finding a distance from the self or shifting the camera away from the
“I” can be useful tools for this work of excavation.
Thanks Lee. I’m prepping for a workshop and I wonder, could I use this exercise (with an attribute to you as always)?
You bet, Tina! Thanks for using it.
This prompt found its way to me at the perfect time! Thank you!
Regina, I hope the prompt works out well for you. Thanks so much for reading my blog.