Story & Narrative Voice in Memoir

David Mura

Apr 27, 2015

Memoir presents a past self--the experiences of that past self and how that self understood those events.  But in addition, memoir frequently presents a present self who sees these past events and the past self differently from the way the past self viewed them.  In such cases it is in the gap between these two understandings, their contradictions and differing pictures, that the voice of the memoirist arises.  And it is through this exploration of the difference between these two selves that memoir finds a depth which it might not otherwise achieve (in part because the memoirist must deal with a past that is far murkier and less decidedly a story than a fiction writer who can make up a story to create narrative drive). 

            What ensues from this dialectic of the past and present self is a series of questions:  Who was I?  Who am I now—that is, who is telling these tales of my past?  What does the present self—the narrator—know about the past that the past self does not know?


            We as human beings always know the truth about ourselves and our relationship to the world—to those around us, to our past, to what we have done, to what we have experienced.  But sometimes that knowledge is deeply buried and unconscious.  Sometimes it is hovering there just at the surface.  And sometimes we look deep into the abyss of ourselves and see ourselves for what we are and recognize the truth. 

            Memoir descends into this abyss and struggles to discover the truths about the past that the author’s past self could not see or admit.   This is often because the past self is either a child or an adolescent and was incapable of understanding all that was happening to herself and to those around her.   Also the younger self often does not have sufficient information to understand the past. 

            But there is also another crucial block writers of memoir often face when confronting the past.  In cases of trauma, what allowed the younger self to survive that trauma was psychological repression or denial.  Without such repression, the terror and constant reminder of that trauma, the knowledge that child does not have control of what has happened or is happening to her, would have been too much for the child to endure.  Thus it is only as an adult that the author possesses the resources and freedom to access the truth of the past and survive.  Obviously this search for the truth entails a struggle within the narrator’s present self; this struggle occurs between the part of her which resists and fears the truth of the past and the part of her which seeks the tell the whole of her tale, to understand and express as fully as possible the truth of the past. 

            In confronting the past, the present voice of the narrator of a memoir is engaged in a search for language.  She needs to find the language which will express what she unconsciously knows but does not yet have a language to express.  The voice of the present self struggles to pass from denial to the truth, from incomprehension or repression to expression. 

            In this way there are two protagonists in most memoirs.  The first protagonist is the past self.  This past self had particular goals at various times in the past, which can run from the seemingly trivial to the profound, from the routine events of childhood to the struggle to survive neglect, abuse, and other forms of trauma.  

            The present self which narrates the memoir is the second protagonist.  Her goal is to find a voice, a language which will not only tell the events of the past but to come to terms with that past, to reveal what it means now to the self in the present.

            As any writer of a memoir knows, achieving these goals is an immense journey, filled with complications and obstructions that are both external and internal.  Thus, in the course of writing the memoir, the present self changes; indeed it must change in order to finish the memoir. 

            As I often tell students, we start a book in order to become the person who can finish the book--That is, the self who finishes the book is not the self who started the book.  The book is ultimately the goal of the present narrating self.  In this way, in the case of a published memoir, whatever the trials and struggles of the past self, the present narrating self has succeeded.  The past may be filled with tragic events and failures, but the writing creates and embodies a different tale, the struggle towards a new self, alive and existing within the pages of the book.

            Sometimes, especially in those memoirs where the story of the past is particularly gripping, the portrait of the present self can be kept in abeyance or in the wings--implied, but never fully given.  But the majority of memoirs both relate the story of the past and, at the same time, reflect upon that story.  In such cases it is essential for the reader to be given a portrait of whom the past self has become, the self who is telling the story now. 

            But that portrait may not come easily at first.  Often, as the writer starts a memoir, the voice remains a bit too anchored in the earlier consciousness, the earlier self.  There’s not quite a voice which delineates the things the earlier self does not see or understand, or the lies the earlier self is telling to herself, the gaps in her consciousness.  

            Thus, at the start of the writing, the firmness of the present self is often far less established than that of the younger self.  It is in the writing of the memoir that the author discovers and creates the voice of the present self. 


            The raw material of memoir are the events and experiences of the past self.  Many successful memoirs take these events and experiences and shape them into a story.

If both fiction and memoirs tell stories, the difference between the two is this: In fiction the writer creates the story.  In memoir the writer discovers the story.

            To discover how to shape the events of the past into a story, it is useful for the memoirist to understand the temporal perspective that the writer of memoir shares with all storytellers.  The novelist and critic John Berger explains this temporal perspective like this: 

            “Suppose a character, in one of the stories you and I write, tried to conceive of his origin, and tried to foresee beyond what he knows of his destiny at any given point of the story.  His enquiries, his speculations, would lead him to hypotheses (infinity, chance, indeterminancy, free will, curved space and time...) very similar to those at which thinkers arrive when speculating about the universe.  That is why the traffic between storytelling and metaphysics is continuous....

            What separates us from the characters about whom we write is not knowledge, either objective or subjective, but their experience of time in the story we are telling.  This separation allows us, the storytellers, the power of knowing the whole.  Yet, equally, this separation renders us powerless: we cannot control our characters, after the narration has begun.   We are obliged to follow them, and this following is through and across the time, which they are living and which we oversee. 

            The time, and therefore the story, belongs to them.  Yet the meaning of the story, what makes it worthy of being told, is what we can see and what inspires us because we are beyond its time.

            Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens.  This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless.

            If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.”  --John Berger, and our hearts, our faces, brief as photos

            A storyteller knows what happened and what the outcome of the story is.  That is why the storyteller can see what happened as a narrative with a narrative structure--a beginning, a middle and an end.  The storyteller apprehends or discovers this structure and understands it in a way the characters in the story cannot.  This is true even when the story is autobiographical.  In that case the writer is looking at herself as a character from the point of view of the timeless, of one who knows what happened and the fate of the protagonist or main character. 

            Thus the present self who narrates the memoir is crucial to the construction of story—the story of the past self.  The present narrative self knows what eventually happened to this younger self and who she became. 

            Generally the ending of the story is when the protagonist either succeeds or fails in the pursuit of her goal.  Thus, the present older narrator self knows—if she is clear about the goal the younger self was striving towards—whether the younger self succeeded in her goal and how she accomplished it (the means by which she accomplished it).  She also knows which were the crucial turning points, which were the false leads and dead ends.  She knows when the younger self failed and why, and she can articulate that in a way the younger self could not.  She knows too how even those failures shaped the younger self and taught her about both herself and her world and therefore, in a dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—helped forge her journey forward.


            It will be useful here to go over the basics principles of story, principles which can be applied to memoir as well as fiction. In memoir it is most often the writer’s past self who serves as the first and most obvious protagonist.  In writing the story of her past then, the memoirist must confront the first rule of story:  A protagonist must have a goal or a desire.  If there is no goal or desire there is no story. If the reader does not know what the goal or desire of the protagonist is, the reader will have difficulty in understanding what the story is about—and thus they will not perceive the structure of the story. In order to write about her past as a story, the memoirist must discover both the smaller day to day goals of her past self and the overall goal of her past self for the time the memoir covers. 

            Once the memoirist discovers the goal(s) of her past self, the pursuit of the goal(s) can be structured as a story.

            In order to do this, it is useful to understand how the discovery and pursuit of a goal in story can be broken down into three acts.   These three acts can be seen not simply in plays or films or fiction, but also within the structures of ancient myths (c.f. Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey). 

            Act I involves the eruption or intrusion of the goal or desire (or mission or journey) in the protagonist’s everyday life.  Act I ends when the protagonist takes up or realizes the goal or desire. 

            In Act II the protagonist struggles to achieve that goal or desire (struggle and doubt, as Mamet puts it). 

            Act III is the final battle in the protagonist’s struggle to achieve that goal or desire.


            What then are the crucial events in Act I?  In terms of story structure, the crucial events are the eruptions or intrusions of the goal or desire.  Joseph Campbell says that in myths there are often two calls for the hero’s journey.  The hero refuses the first call.  When she is called again, she takes up the goal or journey.  The taking up of the goal or journey is the end of the first act. 

            The reason why the protagonist refuses the first call can be seen as inertia, fear, the weight of history and custom, lethargy, lack of insight, etc. 

            Between the first refusal of the call and the second call the protagonist may or may not think consciously about the call.  But her unconscious has been loosened by the first call.  It is shifting to accommodate and recognize the call, even if part of the conscious mind is working against accepting that call.

            So when the second call comes, the psyche of the protagonist has been altered—because of the first call.  The psyche is ready to accept the call now.

            Now there may be a change in outward circumstances which seem to bring about this acceptance.  In classic detective stories, the detective often refuses the call to the case and then his partner or friend or someone he knows takes the case and is killed.  In Star Wars I, Luke comes back to find his uncle and aunt, to whom he has been obligated to, have been killed.

            I think it’s useful to understand that these external events can be read as metaphors for what is happening in the psyche of the protagonist.  This is true both with the specific protagonist of the story and with the universal hero’s journey of which the protagonist is a particular manifestation of.

            In other words, the events of the story are literally the events of the story.  But the events of the story are also metaphors for the journey of the psyche.


            The call and initial refusal of the goal by the protagonist often illustrates another basic principle of story: conflicting desires.

            In the detective case, the detective has some reason for not wanting to take the case—he’s got other cases, it doesn’t pay enough, he doesn’t take this sort of case, he doesn’t like the client, etc.  Whatever the client is offering—money, emotional appeal, sexual allure, etc.—is not enough to set up an irreconcilable desire.  The detective can refuse easily.

            But, as so often happens in detective films, once the detective’s friend or colleague has been killed, the ante has been raised; the reasons for taking the case are greater—love or affection or admiration of the friend, duty, revenge, etc.  Thus the way that the protagonist looks at the positives and negatives of the choice—that is the conflicting desires—has shifted.  The equation of conflicting desires has become more irreconcilable; the protagonist is under more tension.  And as a result of that pressure—of the new incentives or desires—the protagonist takes up the case.

            It is when the protagonist takes up the quest that she makes the transition from the old world into the new world. 

            Now in the mythic journey, there is obviously a physical correlative to this.  In Star Wars Luke enters the bar with all the strange and dangerous aliens.  He then leaves the planet where he has been stranded on.

            But this again can also be scene as a metaphor.  Luke is now willing to enter strange new dangerous places because his psyche has entered a strange new and dangerous place.


            Working with students trying to structure their memoir as a story, I’ve found that often the goal or quest itself has not been clearly stated.

            In order for to resolve this problem, the writer of memoir needs to understand some aspects of the goal—or what David Mamet calls, quoting Hitchcock, the MacGuffin.  In “Three Uses of the Knife,” which is on the three act play structure, Mamet writes:  “That which the hero requires is the play.  In the perfect play we find nothing extraneous to his or her single desire.  Every incident either impedes or aids the hero/heroine in the quest for the single goal.”

            Mamet goes on to discuss ways the goal is defined in politics and classic cinema and plays.  He finds that the goal often has two qualities: 1) the goal is often left conceptually vague—this allows more of the audience to identify with it; 2) the goal is often concrete and generic.  The concreteness allows the person to take actions towards achieving the goal.  One can take specific actions to search for the Maltese Falcon or letters of transit.  The generic nature of the goal again allows more of the audience to identify with it: 

            “Peace with Honor, Communists in the State Department, Supply Side Economics, Recapture the Dream, Bring Back the Pride—these are the stuff of pageant.  They are not social goals; they are, as Alfred Hitchcock told us, The MacGuffin.  This was, of course, Hitchcock’s term for “that which the hero wants,” and his devotion to the concept explains much of his success as a film director.

            He understood that the dramatic goal is generic.  It need not be more specific than: the Maltese Falcon, the Letters of Transit, the Secret Documents.  It is sufficient for the protagonist-author to know the worth of the MacGuffin.  The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be.  Why?  Because a loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal.  Just as they do onto the terms Americanism, or A Better Life, or Tomorrow.

            It is easy to identify with the quest for a secret document, somewhat harder to do so with a heroine whose goal is identifying and understanding the element radium.  Which is why in dramatic biography writers and directors end up reverting to fiction.  To be effective, the dramatic elements must and finally will take precedence over any “real” biographical facts.” 

            Now here Mamet runs us right into the tension or problem of memoir.  In drama you can alter or create the goal so as to create a quest and a situation which can be embodied in actions and dramatic events.  You can alter or create a goal which the majority of the audience can identify with. 

            You do not have this liberty to fictionalize in a memoir—as opposed to a Hollywood “bio pic.”  The events of the story have occurred.  You cannot make them up.

            But Mamet is speaking of the dramatic needs of a screenplay or play.  A memoir can certainly possess narrative and dramatic elements even if the story it tells is not as vividly and concretely dramatic as a Hollywood film.  If a memoir is not a screenplay, that doesn’t mean the writer must simply give up and say, Well, then, there’s no need to try to find a narrative.  The choice is not between either Hollywood narrative or none at all.

            Moreover, it’s interesting what Mamet says subsequent to the remarks above: 

            We viewers don’t care—if we wanted to know about the element radium, we’d read a book on the element radium.  When we go to the movies to see The Story of Marie Curie we want to find out how her little dog Skipper died.

            In a drama, as in any dream, the fact that something is “true” is irrelevant—we care only if that something is germane to the hero-quest (the quest for a MacGuffin) as it has been stated to us.

            The power of the dramatist, and of the political flack therefore, resides in the ability to state the problem. 

            I would submit that the power of the memoirist also resides in the ability to state the problem, to articulate the quest.  

            So at some point in the writing process, if the memoir is to be structured as a story (and granted not all memoirs are), the writer must answer certain basic questions: 

  1. What is it that the protagonist wants?  What is her goal?
  2. What actions does the protagonist take to pursue her goal? 
  3. In taking actions to pursue her goal does she face irreconcilable conflicts? 
  4. How does she resolve these irreconcilable conflicts?  Often people convince themselves that they have resolved an irreconcilable conflict by lying to themselves about the irreconcilability of that conflict? 
  5. What are the lies the protagonist tells herself?  How do those lies eventually lead to further difficulties, complications or even punishment?            

            The writer of the memoir must ask these basic questions in order to understand how the story in her memoir is to be structured.  Again I cannot emphasize enough that to find the answers to these questions requires thinking about the events of the past and the actions of the past self; it necessitates a deeper understanding of who that past self was and why she acted the ways she did.

            Beginning writers, both of memoir and of fiction, often do not do this thinking; they do not attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the narrative structure of the material.  Partly this is because they don’t know which questions to ask, and this is because they don’t know the structures of narrative or understand how they function. 

            But I think this resistance also occurs because the beginning writer doesn’t conceive such work as part of writing.  Writing for many is the working on a particular passage or piece or chapter, on a sentence or a description or a piece of dialogue.  It becomes defined as work with a micro perspective.  The macro perspective, the questions of such things as overall story structure and basic premises and problems with story, are not defined as essential.  Or the writer doesn’t feel they are part of the real work of writing.

            Again, I would submit they are essential, either to fiction or to memoir.