Sunday, April 19, 2015

Finding Your Voice

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.

Where Do You Begin?

I began a short memoir for Dropped Threads II with my father teaching me to ride a bicycle when I was ten years old. (See audio, below.) Try not to begin your memoir at the moment of birth. Instead, choose an event or experience that will set the tone for your life story and provide the reader with a sense of what is to come. In the Canadian memoir Mamie’s Children: Three Generations of Prairie Women (short-listed for a Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction), author Judy Schultz begins in 1990, with the scattering of her mother’s ashes in a clover-smelling field in Saskatchewan. The book then travels back in time to the 1880s and tells the story of Shultz’s grandmother Mamie and her life on the grasslands of the Canadian prairie. Memoirist Wibke Bruhns opens her book My Father's Country: The Story of a German Family with the adult author examining two photographs of her father that she discovered encased in a locket.

When you prepare to write your memoir, make a list of some of the pivotal moments of your life. They may be as simple as a bike ride, or as complex as a marriage breakdown or immigrating to a new country. Dive into these moments—-discover the key elements that changed the course you were on. How did they affect you? The people around you? What incidents stand out in your mind? What was the setting like—-the smells, colours and sounds? In what ways were these incidents reflective or not reflective of the person you became? Choose one of these stories to open your memoir. In the next few blog posts, we will explore the many ways you might structure and write the rest of your life story. We will also look at the ways in which you might find your own distinctive voice as a memoirist.

Listen to "A Place on the Pavement."

What is a Memoir?

A memoir is a writer’s exploration of some aspects and experiences of his or her life. Memoirs examine a life through a particular prism—a mother’s descent into dementia, a boy’s struggle to survive in a concentration camp, a childhood on a farm in South Africa. There is usually an identifiable thread tying the life story together. In the Canadian memoir Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimer’s, a Daughter in Search of the Past, author Caterina Edwards takes a physical journey to Istria, her mother’s homeland. In doing so, she gains fresh insights into her troubled relationship with her mother. In My Father’s Country: The Story of a German Family, German memoirist Wibke Bruhns describes her relationship with a father who was executed for conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Each of these books takes a particular snapshot in time and enlarges it for the reader, bringing into view the emotional and physical layers of one aspect of the author’s life.

While we usually think of memoir in terms of a book or story, memoir can take the form of a traditional narrative, a poem, series of photos, a video, or a painting. An artist friend of mine is creating what she calls a "stand-up memoir," a comedic routine exploring her life. In other words—the type of life story you create can be as unique as you are! In this blog, I will be focusing on life writing, but will also occasionally explore the role of visuals—art and photography—in the development of memoir. Click below to watch a powerful video defining memoir with images, words,and music.