If we show up in our stories as a character, our memoirs are stronger. Why? A reader entering a story needs shoes to walk around in and a pair of lenses to see through. We are embodied creatures. Even in the two-dimensional world of language, we need bodies or, at the very least, personality. Every reader of creative nonfiction is aware of the author lurking behind the story and brings to reading the expectation that the author will appear, either as character or narrator. Graham Swift wrote this about his fiction: “I favor the first person. One reason I do so is that I do not want simply to tell, out of the blue, a story. I want to show the pressure and need for its telling—I am as interested in the narrator as in the narrative. I want to explore the urgency of the relation between the two.”
Swift’s words are doubly true for memoir. Readers may be interested in the story’s plot, but they’re equally (and often more) interested in why the author’s telling this story, how he or she feels about it today, and what meaning it holds. Likewise, as Swift implies, “the pressure and need” for the story’s telling proves to be exciting territory for a writer. So much of the mystery of our material resides not in what happened but in what we make of what happened.
One of the reasons beginning writers don’t show up in their own stories is that they feel self-conscious about placing themselves in the limelight. Who wants to read about “me-me-me?” As Alice McDermott writes, “the sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down a page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” (Carol Bly’s response: “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!—but don’t keep the self-centered language.”) This brings me to my point: While all creative nonfiction includes the self, the best writing uses the self as a conduit to some other purpose. When those first person pronouns are the object of a story (or sentence), the result is naval gazing: “Look at me!” When they are the subject, they act as windows onto a wider world: “I saw the northern lights.” The self conveys the reader outward. “The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness,” Patricia Hampl said in an interview. “Memoirists use the self as a tool.”
Remember that old tidbit of writing class wisdom, “Write what you know”? We each have a wealth of memories to draw from; we each have the capacity to revisit a memory until it’s fleshed out with details; and every memory has an emotional stake (why else do we remember?) that points beyond the details to some truth about what it means to be human. The self isn’t just any tool; it’s our best tool. Don’t be afraid to use it.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew