One important aspect of memoir is “voice.” Each of us has one. An author’s voice is his or her particular style of writing, vision, and attitude towards the world. Voice conveys a writer’s personality, and character. When we compare authors, we can often recognize their different voices—Charles Dickens and Norman Mailer wrote in vastly different ways. Each chose words differently and used a different tone. Mailer’s raw American voice was quite different from Dickens’ elegant and distinctly British prose.
Voice arises out of the author’s experience, and reflects many aspects of his or her life story—such as gender, cultural, social, and economic background. Geography is also important. A memoirist who has lived in a poor rural neighborhood may have a very different writing style than someone who has lived in an upper middle class urban setting.
The country in which a person is raised also has an impact on an author’s voice. For instance, American Maya Angelou's voice is very different from that of Irish-born Colm Toibin. While it is important to read life stories from around the world, it is also important that writers familiarize themselves with life writers from their own country. I am Canadian, and Canadians have long struggled to define their own voice in a world of superpowers and economic powerhouses. That is why it is important for Canadian memoirists to familiarize themselves with writers from their own country—their visions and attitudes may inspire them to delve into what it is to be Canadian and to develop their own unique voices.
To understand how voice works, read memoirs by several different authors. Take note of what is similar or different about the way they write. This week I am recommending two Canadian memoirs written by authors with very different voices. The first is Little Comrades, the first book written by 80-year-old Laurie Lewis. It's a compelling exploration of a girlhood spent in a passionately Communist home with an abusive alcoholic father and a mother who tries desperately to protect her two children. The other book is Taking My Life by the late novelist Jane Rule, who was openly lesbian at a time when that could have plunged her writing career down the drain. Taking My Life is a frank description of Rule's emerging sense of herself.