Memoir is a conversation with your reader – it’s a bit gossipy and it’s intimate. This does not mean you have to be an “E!” entertainment “reporter.” It does mean you should be as honest as possible, because your readers need to know they can trust their relationship with you.
Voice entails style, habits of speech, attitude, and your approach to what you are writing (I’m a survivor, I’m a clown, I’m cynical, I am amazed and grateful)
Here are a couple of examples.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet….
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.” (The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls)
“When the teacher asked if she might visit with my mother, I touched my nose eight times to the surface of my desk.
‘May I take that as a yes?’ she asked.
According to her calculations, I had left my chair twenty-eight times that day. ‘You’re up and down like a flea. . . .’” (Naked by David Sedaris)
In the first example, we see someone who is torn between seeing her mother in a dumpster and not wanting her mother to see her, embarrass her, and pull back the curtain of the author’s carefully protected life. The narrator is serious, matter-of-fact, scared her secret will be revealed, and somewhat callous. During the rest of the story, we come to understand why she is all of these things. But her honesty about her embarrassment and her other feelings make us trust her.
Sedaris, on the other hand, is always funny, sarcastic, and very honest (in a comedic sense). He is completely willing to laugh at himself. His writing is to entertain and to make people laugh and recognize their own weirdness.
Exercise: So, who are you? Try to answer the following questions:
Who are you in real life? Are you somber, funny, intense, laid back, sarcastic, overly worried, well-educated, southern, mid-western, small town person, city dweller, liberal, conservative, jokester, crybaby, etc.
Which parts of you are relevant to your story?
If I know you and start reading your story, am I going to recognize it as yours? I should be able to do that, even though you aren’t showing me all of your sides.
What phrases are yours? For instance, I often say “For goodness sakes,” “Are you kidding me?” and “Really? Really?” Make sure you use the language you usually use.
What quirks are yours? I tend to use humor in the middle of tragedy – including sort of sick type jokes sometimes. I am also, occasionally, really naïve and silly; at times, spiritual and willing to forgive anything; and, sometimes, really cynical and certain the world we live in is insane.
All of these things play a role in my writing, especially in my personal essays or memoirs. Figure out who you are and which “face” is appropriate for your story. Then be true to it.