Sue Silverman on voice in memoir

Sue Silverman has a new nonfiction book called, Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir. She was doing some book promotion on one of my favorite sites: WOW, Women On Writing whererReaders were able to post comments and questions. So, I asked Sue about voice in memoir…..

I am interested in your ideas of voice-the voice of experience and the voice of innocence. I am working on my MFA at Queens University and my instructor for the semester is Rebecca McClanahan who spoke to us at our May residency about your voice concept.

I am working on a coming of age memoir and the 2 voices are something I struggle with the most, how to move between my child and adult voices without pulling the reader out of the story.

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how to balance these voices.

Thanks very much, I look forward to reading your latest book!
Amy Mercer

Blogger Sue Silverman said…
Dear Amy, yes, voice is crucial in memoir, and I do devote an entire chapter to it in “Fearless Confessions”–that’s how important it is.

I agree: it sounds as if the adult voice is a crucial part of your story, to allow it to guide the reader, as it were, through the childhood sections. But, at the same time, it’s important for it to be well integrated.

One exercise you might try, to figure out how to do this, is to take a few pages from one of your favorite memoirs and underline all the sentences, phrases, words that seem to be from that more adult narrator. Notice how the author segues from one voice to the other.

Also, you might ask Rebecca (she’s a friend of mine!) to note on your own manuscript the places where she thinks you might want to focus on that more adult voice.

Overall, the point, I think, is for that voice NOT to sound like commentary, as if it explaining the experiences of the child “you,” or persona. That’s not the function of it. Rather, it is a more metaphoric voice that reflects upon the experience.

So keep the word “reflection” in mind, as you write. Reflection doesn’t mean remembering the past or commenting upon it. It’s a search to see the past in a new light. And by allowing this adult voice to do just that, to evolve from the young voice as a questioning, reflecting, searching kind of voice, I think you’ll be able to achieve more of that blending.

In short, as the young voice engages in an action, the more adult voice seeks to understand the action: thus, the two voices are always working together.

I hope this helps even a little? Thank you so much for your question. Let me just add that I know this can be a tough craft issue to master. And a lot of it is just practice. I teach at another low-residency MFA program–at Vermont College of Fine Arts–and I always encourage my students to be a bit patient, too–writing is such a process.

I wish you all the best with your memoir. And please tell Rebecca I say “hello”!!

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