Narrating Memoir: Who’s Telling Your Life Story?
The memoirist is asked to play many roles: simultaneously that of the author, the narrator, and the character. And while those of the author (you, who sits at the keyboard) and the character (younger you, in the scenes you are recollecting) may be easily understood, that of the narrator is both the slipperiest and perhaps the most important. As Vivian Gornick writes, “we pull from ourselves the narrator who can shape better than we can the inchoate flow of event into which we are continually being plunged.” The narrator is the one who both makes sense of and problematizes life. Philip Lopate reminds us that the narrator must deliver to the reader what they’ve come to the book for: the sense that an active, searching mind lies behind the memoirist’s inquiry. And Sven Birkerts tells us that the narrator must do no less than save the reader from the “the coma-inducing effect of ‘and then.’” So much for the narrator to do! But who is this crucial construct, and how do you find yours?
In this one-week class, we’ll begin by distinguishing the character from the narrator in published work, drawing on craft essays to help us in our analysis. We’ll discover what a strong narrator can give an author—and, equally important, when the narrator should step back and allow the character to come to the forefront. As the week progresses, we will turn to your own writing, with a series of short daily exercises. Students will finish the week with a better understanding of their narrator and specific ideas for how to strengthen it. At the end of the class, each student will receive an email from the instructor with suggestions for moving forward with their memoir.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, which was named a finalist for a Goodreads Choice Award and a New England Book Award, and one of Audible.com, Book Riot, and the Guardian’s Best Books of 2017. A National Endowment for the Arts fellow and two-time fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, she lives in Somerville, MA and teaches at Harvard.