A simple word ‘I’ :Memoir Monday on Tuesday

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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.

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. Commenced a masters by research in 2014.
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18 Responses to A simple word ‘I’ :Memoir Monday on Tuesday

  1. Lisa Reiter says:

    This exploration helps make sense of, in part, why some memoirs are a better read than others. I find the quickly told stories without acknowledgment of the writer’s changing perspective / self / their “I” to be less rich, less aware. I read memoir to discover those changes. It’s that element of self discovery within someone’s story that is most interesting to me. And so, Irene you’re helping me form a greater understanding of the importance of that thread within my own manuscript. I have already written a few small parts in third person – not because I don’t like or agree with the version of myself I’m writing about but either because it’s now impossible to step into ‘her’ context as I know things she doesn’t or sometimes I’m unwilling – in case I resurrect her hopelessness. Powerful memories invoke powerful feelings but more than that, sometimes for the writer they invoke a state of being. It’s important to reflect on whether we should practice the writing of positive events to neutralise the bad – something I’ve known I should do but don’t!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is interesting that you say that Lisa that you read memoir to discover the changes in the self. There is a theorist Couser who wrote Memoir, An introduction who says exactly the same thing and that for him if too much dialogue and high definition description is used a memoir loses that ability. One of the reasons that memoirists use these fictional strategies is to show not tell but by showing Couser believes you are leaving it up to the reader to decide and you lose the reflection on it. I haven’t conveyed very well what he means but hope you get the gist.
      I’m glad I’m assisting in some way although I think you would be working it out yourself anyway. Working out that thread/focus is more difficult than you imagine – until you start to work out your own. Amazing though once you have it editing becomes so much easier.
      I’m going to have to ponder the writing of equal positive and negative events. That is something I haven’t contemplated.

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      • Lisa Reiter says:

        Ooo! I think that’s interesting because I’m actually a fan of plenty of show (not tell). I would like to argue it can sometimes be exactly the opposite problem I.e. That in the telling there is more scope for misinterpretation.
        It’s one of the discussions I hope we might have next week in my class – that of how to have intellectual reflection without preaching / boring / imposing a view etc on the reader. Of course sometimes we hope to convey greater meaning or our particular take on a situation. However the choice of language when telling the reader can mean they still misinterpret something – especially when they’re reading from another cultural or language. I know many of my interactions with American bloggers leave me guessing what they mean or wondering why they missed what I was trying to say. Humour is often lost in translation!

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      • I know what you mean by misinterpretation particularly between different English speaking nations. Not knowing or having different meanings of words, different cultural knowledge and all sorts of things can make it very difficult but an interesting dilemma to try to overcome in order to make the writing universally readable. If, of course, that is what we want to do. Humour is even more difficult to send across the boundaries. All my problems have occurred with pieces that I have been attempting to show the reader. With showing we are allowing the reader to interpret as he/she likes, bringing to the mix all the pre-knowledge, world-views, experiences etc that they already have. Knowing the difficulties of conveying the meaning (and I presume you attempt to show rather than tell as do I) what you think you are showing and the outcome you want the reader to glean from your descriptions may not be what you had hoped. I think what Couser is saying is that he reads memoir to be told/see what the memoirist has learnt from the experience as opposed to making his own interpretation of what they have learnt. He feels that using high definition descriptions and dialogue fictionalises the memoir to a point where the truth of the writer’s reflections are lost in amongst it. I don’t know how there would be more room for misinterpretation if you are told.
        I made a decision to use dialogue and to a lesser extent high definition scenes as it seems to be the accepted thing in modern memoir but I kept the dialogue under 10% of the total narrative.
        I’ll be very interested to hear what they say about it in your course if they discuss this.

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  2. Lisa Reiter says:

    It is the possible misinterpretation of the actual words of one’s reflection that bothers me. I find I think in metaphor and simile and I make links between experiences that others wouldn’t
    – which I think is probably a function of my individual brain and a priming for associations between trauma and seemingly other unrelated events.
    But… This is possibly the thread I have been running away from – within the purpose of my book – I do fear being misunderstood, trivialised etc through misinterpretation and the upshot is I’m avoiding writing reflection rather than pursuing it as a practice! Will see if I can get Couser on Amazon!
    Thank you so much for the discussion. This is really useful for me. Lisa 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Couser is available on Amazon. I bought my copy for my kindle. The last chapter is where he talks about this but the entire book I found was very readable and informative – giving lots of food for thought. It doesn’t tell you how to write but makes you think of the issues that go with memoir writing.
      I think writing in metaphor and simile is great but perhaps it depends on whether they are understandable metaphors. I must get on and review Bite Your Tongue which is very much written as metaphors. A fantastic book in my opinion.
      Enjoyed the discussion Lisa.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sherri says:

    Irene, this is all so interesting. The crux is this: ‘Subsequently I believe that memoir is told not to remember the past but to make the future we want for ourselves.’ I thought that my memoir was going to be my account of my American boyfriend’s battle with and death from leukaemia. So in essence, I was writing my memoir about him but from my point of view as the narrated ‘I’. But then I realise I couldn’t do that as I didn’t feel I had the right to tell ‘his’ story. The only story I could and should tell is my own. And that meant changing the way I wrote my memoir completely. Now I was writing it from my own perspective, having to put myself back into my 19,20,21 year old self, and the entire cast of characters as we were then in 1978 to 1981. I have to reconstruct another era, quite alien to the world in which we live today. Your discussion with Lisa is fascinating. Because I lived in America so long, have American children, even though they are now essentially ‘English’ in their outlook, I find that I have to remember what it was like all that time ago to go to America for the first time and use words that I don’t use know because our culture has become more Americanised. For instance, back then I would have said ‘look at the lorry.’ Now I would say ‘look at the truck’. Back then, when I first visited my boyfriend’s brother was constantly teasing me about my English words and calling me on it, in a way that I took as teasing that sometimes went too far and it annoyed me as I felt belittled. But I realise, in writing it now, that I felt belittled because I had felt belittled growing up by some of the adults I grew up with. I realise now I had zero self esteem but I didn’t know that then. How do I convey this through my narrated ‘I’? Do I write with a reflective voice from the ‘I’ of today making sense of my feelings of the ‘I’ of then? I find it fascinating the Virginia Woolf quote and your point that our viewpoint is written afresh over time as we construct it. I had never really thought about that before. This makes sense though, and explains why I realised eventually that the memoir I’m writing is about my search for my purpose,my fit in the world, the driving force that tells the story of why I couldn’t leave Jon, believing that I could help fix him. But what I should have been doing was fixing myself. I came to that realisation many years later, to my detriment. Oh I’m rambling I think, so I’ll stop here. I really need to go away and ponder all of this, and I will be back to read and re-read and hopefully it will start to sink in! Thank you so much Irene for doing these posts, they are so helpful to us memoir writers! 🙂 ❤

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    • It sounds as though you have worked out what you are writing about and I can’t wait to read it. It is interesting that you found that you had to change your whole perspective to focus in what you finally knew was your story. I know what you mean about putting yourself back in those shoes. It is next to impossible as we have all this knowledge now that we didn’t have then but that also adds to the story. I had trouble remembering some parts for my sequel simply because life was boring at that time. Language is a funny one because from being such a distinct different language (and there are still so many words that are unknown between nations) it has also merged to such an extent that often I don’t know (can’t remember) what was the English version of a word or I will write for example nonfiction (American) sometimes and non-fiction (English) at others. It means I have to go through every document looking for these errors as I should use one or the other consistently. The insights you are gaining from writing your memory sound huge and I hope has made you realise that you are a great person. The more I read of your writing (even a comment such as this) makes me know that your book when you do sort out the way you want to present it is going to be a read that is both enjoyable and moving. Glad the posts are helpful. As I said it is not information you need to write a memoir but examines issues that memoir writers are faced with in the process of the writing. ❤ 🙂

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      • Sherri says:

        Ahh…thank you Irene, you have made my day with your lovely reply! ❤ Sharing the memoir process with you through various mediums of communication over these few years has been invaluable. Although you are sharing this information not to tell anyone how to write memoir, it is extremely helpful in so many ways by helping us examine the issues we face. And I still have more than one to sort out, but at least it's moving in the right direction! I am so looking forward to reading your next part. There is no doubt that once finding that until now all-elusive perspective, it helps so much with the rewrites. But a long way to go yet! And now I can understand why it takes so long to write a book! Your encouragement has kept me going more than you will ever know! I'll be back very shortly to catch up…and you'll be amazed to know that I've actually posted today…only 5 weeks since my last, so not too bad really, ha!!! Hope your day is going well…Love & Hugs ❤ 🙂 xxx

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      • I’ve always thought the writing was the easy part of the process. It is the editing that takes the time and I think for most of us that process could go on forever if we let it. Glad you are enjoying the posts and I agree it is nice to be in it together – the encouragement helps. Looking forward to reading your post. 5 weeks isn’t bad at all with all you have on. Have a good weekend. ❤ 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sherri says:

        Thank you Irene…and here we are another week on so I will wish you a very happy weekend for this one! And yes, at some point we have to say ‘enough is enough’ with the edits. I get cheesed off re-reading my stuff!!! ❤

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      • At some point you read but you no longer see. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sherri says:

        Yep…got that… ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Charli Mills says:

    My present I is fascinated with the depth of I narration. In journalism, we learn to to eliminate the I and in communication we include…yeah, you see it, I becomes we. This really gives me a greater appreciation though for memoir: “memoir is told not to remember the past but to make the future we want for ourselves.” It has much to do with why I write — to explore the past to understand today and prepare for tomorrow.

    Liked by 3 people

    • In some respects the big difference between memoir and fiction is not in how it is written as many fictions pieces are written memoir style in the first person but rather in how it is read by the reader. Even in journalism I have noticed it is becoming much more emotive and the personal reflections are being conveyed more by the journalist – in Australia, at any rate, many journalistic articles have become a creative non-fiction form. I preferred it when it was more reportage as I feel there is a real danger in people not making their own minds up about what is happening in our world.
      Interesting that we both write our different genres for much the same reason.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Experience: Memoir Monday on Tuesday | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  6. Pingback: Memoir Monday: The Big Picture – Lisa Reiter – Sharing the Story

  7. Pingback: Voice: Memoir Monday on Tuesday | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

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