Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Point of View

Looking BackA novel can be written in one of several points of view, but a memoir is written exclusively in first person – the “I” viewpoint of the narrator. While this is a great vehicle to draw readers in and bring them close to you and your story, the key to good writing is to take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel.

For memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens itself — or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze. ~ Jane Friedman*

Author and editor Alane Salierno Mason prefers “an eye seeing to an I talking” which is the difference between an “I memoir” and an “eye memoir.” Try describing what you see in a one-dimensional photo of the Grand Canyon, and then do the same after standing on the edge of the real thing. The one can only take you so far, the other can take you anywhere. And the reader with you.

When it is an eye, it is in constant relation to the outside world. This kind of eye sees not only from the narrator’s point of view [or] only from the point of view of the moment; it stands and moves both inside and outside the self. It might even see from the point of view of ancestors, both literal and literary; it might see itself swept along in historical and cultural and political currents and in others even more mysterious. It sees itself swimming in a larger sea than that of the individual. ~ Alane Salierno Mason**

Accomplishing the kind of re-focus necessary for an “eye memoir” requires you to step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. Take us with you across a lonely schoolyard or into a dark woods. Show us a face of joy, let us hear the words that cut you deep. It isn’t, “I cried when my parakeet died,” but, “I turned then, right before the screen door slammed. And I saw – in the insistent beat of his wings, his delicate head thrust forward, eyes intent and focused on mine – his longing to be with me. The door hit with a dull thud, and not the sharpness it should have. And then he was falling, silent and still, to the floor….”

This thoughtful, empathetic, reflective persona is the real heart of memoir, the voice that readers will follow and want to know. The discoveries it makes over the course of the story, the wisdom it uncovers and brings to the tale, even its confusions and uncertainties — these will carry the audience through, well beyond the limits of “me, me, me.” ~ Tracy Seeley***

In filtering every detail through your eyes, your story becomes your truth. And in the end, your memoir is not so much about what happened but about the importance of your journey, about what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

What would be the most difficult part of going back and seeing your life again through the perspective of younger eyes?

*Jane Friedman, “Your No. 1 Challenge If You’re Writing Memoir”

**Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”

***Tracy Seeley, “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger Than Me, Me, Me”


1 thought on “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Point of View

  1. Pingback: Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques | Cate Macabe

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