Voice: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

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© irene waters 2016

In an earlier post on the ‘I’ characters found in memoir I mentioned that the narrating ‘I’ could be polyvocal – that they could have multiple voices.

Firstly, what is a voice. There are two meanings and one always occurs in memoir whilst the other works in some. Firstly it is the distinctive tone or style of an author or memoir (indeed all literary works will have a voice). In memoir the reader consumes the work hearing the narrator’s voice– perhaps persuading, confiding, grieving or confessing — and will assign what they hear to being the author’s own voice. It often feels as though the author is talking directly to you. In fact, I felt this was one of the biggest compliments I had received when a friend who had read my first memoir said to me that she felt as though I was in the room telling my story. This relationship between the voice and the reader differs from fiction where seldom is the voice read in the novel ascribed to the author.

It is this voice that gives us the essence of the person the narrator is. It gives us a view into their inner thoughts and expresses the relationships the narrator has between others and the world in which he/she lives. This is the voice that often makes it seem as though a memoir is full of ‘I’ and therefore mono vocal. This is far from the reality as the narrating ‘I’ also gives us numerous other voices. In a bildungsroman (coming of age narrative) the narrating ‘I’ will give the voice of the remembered child and this will change as the child goes from one state to another. The same may occur in an illness memoir where we might be given the remembered voice of the sick ‘I’ with this changing as they recover or survive. There may also be the voices of the parents, doctors, teachers, siblings and many others.

Time will also have an effect on the voices  depending on the time span of the narrative where one ‘I’ can change into another, the time between the events and the writing of them can change the voice due to ideological changes or that distance from the events has led to a change in the author’s relationship to the event. For example, a marriage separation written the day after it occurred would probably have a caustic, condemning, ironic or bitter voice as opposed to one written twenty years later where both parties were now both happily remarried. If the time it has taken for the narrative to be written is also a long time period it is possible to see a change of voice within th e narrative itself.

Voice can also be shown by dialogue and this can involve numerous people as individuals, giving the reader a relationship with these others as well and showing the relationship of the narrated ‘I’ to them. Dialogue is a good tool by which to develop character. However voice is not necessarily confined to the individual but can be the voice of a community or group. Voice will show the effect of culture, ethnic background and other facets of a communal group such as gender and social standing.

The second meaning of voice in memoir is where the narrative is written to tell the story of a disadvantaged group that is giving voice to a group that had been previously silent. These included feminist memoirs, aids memoirs and many other politically sensitive groups.

When looking at my own voice I believe that it has a conversational tone, as though I am sitting with a glass of red wine in hand telling a story to friends at a dinner party. One memoir that I read I felt the tone of voice was gossipy and conspiratorial. The author Susan McCorkindale also used second person and this annoyed me immensely as I didn’t agree with everything she said and became angry that she presumed she knew what I was thinking. Elizabeth Gilbert in her sequel to Eat Pray Love used an academic voice for large parts of it as did Jill Kerr-Conway in her sequel True North. What kind of voice does your narrator use? Can you recognise the other voices in the narrative?

This is part of Memoir Monday. If you write about memoir, technique, your own experiences and process please feel free to link up.

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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9 Responses to Voice: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

  1. Norah says:

    It’s interesting to think about the different voices and the purposes for using each or a variety. The use of second person annoys me too, especially when people are speaking about their own experiences. I really must get myself a copy of your first memoir and get it read! I like the sound of your conversational tone.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Irene, I really enjoy these Tuesday memoir posts. I’m learning so much and you’re making me think about writing issues in ways I’ve never considered before.
    I agree that second person point of view can be really aggravating because the reader feels like she’s being ordered around. Your comment, “I became angry that she presumed she knew what I was thinking,” proves how dangerous this POV can be. Italo Calvino’s book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, is a famous and well regarded novel in second person point of view, but I haven’t read it so I can’t tell you whether it’s as good as they say.
    Thanks for this well written series. I find myself looking forward to your new post every Tuesday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you are enjoying these Sharon. It also makes me think and condensing a huge topic down into one blog post I find a challenge in itself and just hope I get the essence of it right. These concepts regarding memoir are rarely considered by anyone other than scholars but it does make both the reading and the writing of them deeper when considered. It also gives the genre a little more clout as it is often looked at as the non-fiction equivalent of a penny dreadful.
      Glad you agree about 2nd person as did Norah. I haven’t read Calvino’s book either and at a later date I may at least start it to see whether it has the same effect.
      Thank you also for reading and letting me know you find them valuable. It’s appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sherri says:

    I too think it’s a wonderful compliment to be told that someone reading your work feels as if you are talking to them. I feel that from you from what I’ve read here. It was nice to get that same feedback from a few at the course I recently attended, and that made me feel pretty good 🙂 I agree also with you, Norah and Sharon about the second person, it puts me right off. Voice is the very heart of memoir, what the reader takes with them long after they have finished reading – hopefully! I’m not sure I would enjoy an academic voice at all, but I haven’t read the books you quoted so can’t really comment fairly. Did you enjoy them? I would say I’m with you, writing with a conversational tone, at least I hope that how it comes across, but it’s the only way I know how to write so I will be hard pushed to change it…and I can’t even begin to think about that! Again, another great article on a subject I’m lapping up. Loving your memoir series Irene, thank you! 🙂 >3

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you are enjoying the memoir posts Sherri. It is good to think about these things although it doesn’t have to change what we do by becoming aware of what we do can make a difference to the way we understand what we are writing and how the reader may read it. I’m not surprised that you got a similar feedback re your memoir as feeling as though you are talking to the us (the reader) in your posts is one of the wonderful aspects of your writing. Did I enjoy the memoirs with the academic voices – not particularly although some more than others. I much prefer a conversational tone. ❤ 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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