Occasionally I get asked who do you write about when you write a memoir. Although some people write about people they have known, usually well-known mothers or fathers, part of the definition of memoir means that it has to come from the author’s memory so therefore it has to be someone the author knows or knew. Memoirists who write about others, however, are not as common as those who write about themselves. But is the ‘I’ you read in memoir yourself?
Who is that ‘I’? As the events have happened in the past then it is the ‘you’ of the past, would be the answer I would expect if were to pose that question. However, that is impossible as that past ‘I’ is purely that, a figure shown in historical records, photographs, newspaper cuttings and other extraneous sources to have existed. This ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ we read about in memoir as this ‘I’ can never be reproduced as he/she was.
The ‘I’ we read about (the protagonist) is called the narrated ‘I’. This ‘I’ is constructed from the memory of the living ‘I’, the ‘I’ who is doing the narrating. I use the word constructed (or created) intentionally as our memories are not retrieved unchanged from viewing to viewing but constructed afresh on each occasion and can change over time. Virginia Woolf wrote in her unfinished essay Sketches from the Past:
2nd May… I write the date, because I think I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present to serve as platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.
So the constructed, narrated ‘I’ is formed. This ‘I’ I believe is essential for selfhood. Our identity comes from this ‘I’. One of my gurus, PJ Eakin, believes that telling our life stories (and we all do it whether as a formal memoir, over dinner with a glass of wine, in the dating site advertisements, obituaries and on and on) is a homeostatic function as important as temperature regulation or pH and our future success is dependant upon it. Subsequently I believe that memoir is told not to remember the past but to make the future we want for ourselves.
The narrating ‘I’ is the person living in the present day who is doing the remembering and also adding reflections. This ‘I’ is not only remembering a former version of themselves but is remembering and writing the biographies of the others related in the narrative. Therefore, this ‘I’ can speak in numerous voices – that of the child they are relating, the doctor, parent, farmer depending on who features in the narrative.
But they are not the only ‘I’ seen in memoir. There is also what Smith and Watson in their book Reading Autobiography term the ‘ideological I’. This ‘I’ knows what is acceptable and what is not based on living in the world and knowing what are cultural norms are at the time of the telling. Again these can change over time and successive memoirs of the same story can see a difference in the ‘I’ character that is narrated. This can be seen in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), which followed his life as he went from slavery to fugitive to free man and finally, he obtained an identity. However, he had little leeway as far as free speech as his book followed the social and cultural expectations of the time. He wrote two more autobiographies with the last revision of the second of these done in 1892. With each successive volume the narrative changed as after the civil war the social climate changed and Douglass himself obtained more freedom to express himself. Similar types of issues are sure to have occurred with WWII memoir narratives.
What do you do when your ‘I’s’ don’t like each other? It happens. Sometimes one ‘I’ cannot understand what an earlier ‘I’ did or believed. Coetzee wrote in the third person to demonstrate this disconnect. Have you got ways to deal with this dilemma?
Considering the ‘I’s of memoir other issues arise such as memory, time, person and the ethics of writing other people. These will become topics of future Memoir Monday on Tuesday posts. Interested in memoir then also visit Lisa who kicked off Memoir Monday. The more in the conversation the better.