Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can You Spell Memoir Without the “I”?

As a child, I was painfully shy. I still am in many ways, though I’ve learned through practice to be more assertive and more comfortable interacting with folk face to face. So when I first started thinking seriously about writing about my days as a vet tech, I struggled with the best format. If I fictionalized the account, a la James Herriot’s brilliant All Things Bright and Beautiful series, I could make up a main character who was me but not me. Perhaps even write it in the third person because, really, how much hubris does it take to write about yourself, especially in the first person?

The story, though, didn’t seem to want to follow a typical novel approach and she felt odd, this character who was me but not me. Plus, in a strange way, telling my story through fictional eyes made the story itself feel like a lie.

So I switched to first person. But then I had this gawky teenager thinking wise thoughts and making decisions that were well beyond her years. Though the events were true, her involvement in them didn’t seem believable.

What I needed was authenticity and a way to distance the me writing the tales from the me who was (re)living them. What I wound up with was a Wonder Years sort of voice-over me who could serve as the interpreter and blank-filler-in-er for what the naïf me couldn’t grasp at the time.  

Having a comfortable format, though, doesn’t solve the underlying issue of feeling that I’m shouting “me me me” and wanting to duck into the nearest closet to avoid the attention. I still cringe every time I type “I” or “me” when writing a new tale. Even now, deep into Volume 2 of the Vet Tech Tales, I’m still insecure enough to ask who would possibly buy my book to hear about my past. Who could possibly care? Is what I’m doing simply the equivalent of trotting out the home movies and asking guests to sit through one tedious reel after another?

And, most importantly, is that teenage me really cool enough and interesting enough to be my own main character?

Yeah, still feeling awkward and shy about it all.

When YOU read a memoir, do you identify the author as the narrator or a character? Neither? Both?

And while I have you here, do you have any tips for making it easier to expose your younger self in public?

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.



Jennifer Blake said...

Most memoirs seem to create a philosophcial distance which allows the author to look back at their younger self with detachment, commenting on past events from a more mature viewpoint--or with 20-20 hindsight. In a sense, they are both character and narrator. The trick, it seems to me, would be in maintaining whatever general attitude is taken up at the outset, whether humorous, nostalgic, or whatever.

And I hate to tell you, but a writer is mentally exposed the instant they put words on paper. Doesn't matter whether it's a memoir, literary opus, mystery or the lightest of sweet romances, you can never hide your core personality, core beliefs and attitudes. Nor should you try, for these are things to which readers, often unknowingly, respond. All of which is to say I've got to read these tales from when you were a kid!

Kathy Faucheux said...

I think your "Wonder Years voice-over" was an inspired solution, and I really enjoyed reading Vet-Tech Tales, Volume 1. It was funny, heart-warming, and even informative, and it kept me sane during one of my daughter's marathon medical test days. I can't wait to read Volume 2!