Writing Narrative Nonfiction: Playing with the Narrating Voice of Memoir

July 31, 2007
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story:  Writing Narrative Nonfiction

Playing with the Narrating Voice of Memoir

by Lisa Dale Norton

August 2007

". . .we remain the same in many ways . . . the eight year old you were was a thinker and speaker set apart from the mature adult"
—Norton

When you were eight years old you thought about different things than you think about todayyour bike, toys, your pet hamster or best friend, your birthday, summer beckoning at the end of a long school year.

You thought in different patterns, too, focused around daily concerns and your need for your mother and father. You used words and expressions you no longer use. You had physical habits you've left behind.

Sure, there are still similarities between the girl you were and the woman you are we remain the same in many ways, no matter what our age but the eight year old you were was a thinker and speaker set apart from the mature adult reading this column.

"Can you capture again the imaginary friends, her daily world . . . "
—Norton

Do you remember that girl's pet phrases? Can you capture again the imaginary friends, her daily world constructed from sunlight and an afternoon without tasks? What were her emotions, and what language would best bring them to life in a piece of writing today?

". . .use the voice and intelligence of an earlier self to guide your story. "
—Norton

As a writer of memoir, you can use the voice and intelligence of an earlier self to guide your story. You can use the actions and words, the fears and desires of that girl or boy you once were. Just as the fiction writer defines the character who presents the tale, so too may the writer of narrative nonfiction play with the voice of the narrator and chose who will tell the story.

"Can you get inside that boy's heart and mind and write from his voice . . ."
—Norton

Will you be the adult looking back and talking about your life in the past, rather like a voice-over, weighted with all the intelligence and experience of the person you are today? Or will you dive into the scene and be the boy riding like wind through neighborhoods at dusk, the wheels of your bike spinning so swiftly you know you can fly? Can you get inside that boy's heart and mind and write from his voice, capturing the cadence of his thoughts and speech? Or will you invent some mix of the two, the boy 's voice layered with the wisdom of the adult writer?

". . . try writing that same memory from the perspective of the woman you are now."
—Norton

Here 's an exercise: Try bouncing around a bit when you write your life stories; try experimenting. Record in words a memory using the voice and perception of the girl you were at the time the event happened. Then try writing that same memory from the perspective of the woman you are now. How are they alike? How are they different? And which do you like best? Which comes most easily to you? Can you see the advantages or disadvantages of both?

"Playing . . . with the craft . . . helps you learn the best way to realize the stories "
—Norton

Playing like this with the craft of writing helps you learn the best way to realize the stories that wait inside you. And only by playing with those possibilities will you identify fresh ways to capture your past in story.

About
Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (Picador USA/St. Martin's Press). She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program, the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and the Whidbey MFA Program. Lisa speaks nationally on her passion: the power of story to transform lives. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

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