Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire
I remember the first time I thought of myself as a character in my memoir. I was listening to a teacher in my MFA program describe how hard it had been to create his own character on the page. The idea of myself as character came as revelation. To portray myself as seen from outside myself! How on earth does one do that?
Like me, as you compose your memoirs you are writing about the various characters in your life: parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, men, children, influential mentors and so on. You are working hard to portray those characters on the page in such as way that they will feel real, complex, and well-rounded to your readers. Yet it is easy to forget that you are also a character because you exist within the story as the narrator.
Out of this same revelation, Vivan Gornick, in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, writes:
“Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona.”
Gornick urges us to consider the character of the narrator we are creating, and to be conscious about who we fashion. Who or what is our narrator’s persona? What is she like? What does she experience and how does she experience it? We could ask, How does she play with others?
Through Gornick’s and my teacher’s words, I came to understand that just as it is my responsibility as author to re-create the world, the people, and the events of my life within the memoir, it is my responsibility to re-create my narrative persona. The “me” that tells the story—the narrator who exists within the story itself. Yes, “I” as author and “I” as narrator share a personality, but the narrative “I” is only a part of me—the part that experiences and reflects upon the events in the story. She is not the whole me, any more than the mother in my story is the whole of my real mother.
I come back to my original question. How do I portray myself honestly on the page, and in such a way that my readers will see me as real, complex, imperfect, yet sympathetic? And which of my traits will best accomplish this?
This is where journal writing comes into play (ah, you knew I’d get around to this this didn’t you?). Journaling helps us explore perceptions, characteristics, and traits. Any journaling technique that helps us build others’ characters will also help us build our own. The trick, though, is to be scrupulously honest and avoid self-deception.
Here are a few journaling prompts and/or techniques that I’ve used to explore and develop my narrative persona:
- Brainstorming lists of physical, character and personality traits, and behaviors.
- Writing letters to myself from other characters in my story—a trick that helps me to see myself from their perspectives and outside myself.
- Writing a scene in third person Point of View, as if I was writing about someone else, then changing it to first person later.
- Writing a scene from different age vantage points. For example, writing about an event that happened when I was twelve both from my 12-year-old narrator’s perspective, using only what I knew and thought then, and my older, adult perspective.
Join the conversation: Try one or more of these journaling tricks and let us know how they worked for you, or share method that’s helped you portray yourself on the page.
For creative ways to use your journal, as well as writing tips and prompts, be sure to connect with me onWritingThroughLife.com.