Memoir and Voice and Why You Need to Sharpen Up

Whilst Frank McCourt [Angela’s Ashes] and Augusten Burroughs [Running With Scissors; A Wolf at the Table] survived accusations of inaccuracies in their memoirs, James Frey’s highly successful A Million Little Pieces, 2002 [featured on Oprah’s Book Club] did not help the genre when it was later revealed he made up 70 per cent. 

However, the truly worst case was Sybil [1973], about a woman’s dissociative identity disorder and the most harrowing book I have ever read [aside from Dave Pelzer’s A Boy Called It, 1995]. In 2012 Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case demonstrated that Sybil was a money-making venture cooked up by the author, Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil [Shirley Mason] and her therapist, Dr Cornelia Wilbur.

So this history may have contributed to the sense right now that dysfunctional childhood memoir has had its day. However, some books have overcome this due to the voice the authors utilise. This was achieved as far back as 1985 with Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit and more latterly by Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy [2002] and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle [2005].

The message is – even a total unknown  can make headway with agents and publishers if they write with a captivating voice.

The late Maeve Binchy in Develop Your Own Style [1983] recommends we should write as we speak because then our work will come across as real, as opposed to the following example:

“Untimely fingers of frost in what should have been the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness nipped Ann O’Leary as with furrowed mien she proceeded from the domestic portals and directed her steps to the main thoroughfare.”

This writer [and the reader for that matter] would be better off with this:

“It was a cold autumn day when a worried-looking Ann O’Leary left her house.”

Good writing is not about cramming sentences with tons of adverbs and adjectives but this ‘method’ is seen time and again on the many sites where would-be authors can upload their writing: Authonomy, Wattpad, Booksie, Figment and Worthy Of Publishing; this is before we even get to the self-publishing sites like Kindle Direct, Lulu and Smashwords. Please note I am not knocking any of these sites, but the tsunami of demon chaff is overwhelming anything decent.

Binchy says to use your natural [speaking] voice when writing even if you are concerned it might be full of slang, local idiom or phrases that may become unfashionable, because you will always sound real.

And the more honest your language in memoir, the more you will reveal, which is what the reader wants – you – naked on the page [so to speak].

Don’t try to emulate successful authors’ styles. This is not to be confused with the oft-touted advice that to write well, you need to read widely.

I am forever banging on that self-awareness plays a part in being a successful memoirist since it really pays to be enormously objective in order to self-edit and take notice of critique.

So two precepts aid writers – voice and self-knowledge – but how do we know if we are blessed with these innate tools?

Ask yourself these questions:

Are you known as a natural [verbal] storyteller?

Do you usually get laughs when relating anecdotes [even of a shocking nature]?

Do you strive to see both sides of a debate?

If you can answer ‘yes to these queries then it is highly likely you have the vital skills to be a writer.

Finally, just reverting to the current status of memoir, Phillip Lopate says in To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction [2013] that autobiographical prose, one of the oldest and most difficult literary practices, should not be designated a fad.

He further notes that “much more balance and self-mocking perspective is available to the coming of age memoir than simply slotting it into the category of trauma and misery would suggest … many memoirists still manage to reach a deeper level of self-insight and detachment.”

No matter how ‘bad’ your back-story is, avoid being self-righteous and/or bitter as you will be repellent to readers.

Never overlook the fact that your book is not for you, but for the wider audience.


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