In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick raises what one might consider one of the “arts” to be accessed in memoir: point of view. For me, this is a most powerful concept to consider and one I teach and speak about a great deal. It may seem obvious, yet how often do we consider our opinions, thoughts, and observances as “point of view” rather than “the truth.”
The root of all memoir writing is tuning in to a point of view that has some power or sway: over our life, our thinking, our actions … and then getting that point of view / narrative / story down on paper or screen. Gornick writes: “the point of view originates in the nervous system and concentrates itself in the person of a narrator who causes the essay [memoir, novel, short story…] to move steadily forward, driven by an internal impetus that the reader can spot on page one … writers … and this is crucial, they know who they are at the moment of writing. They know they are there to clarify” (30).
This is it! When we as writers know ourselves best: in the act of writing, the act of transcribing our ideas and telling and transforming our experiences in order to clarify. I have long known and taught that when we are in that place of exploring our point of view in the quest for knowledge or understanding we must write. The action of writing our point of view is a form of honouring and activism. It’s cathartic and can be the seeds for great revelation. For me, the action and the acknowledgment stems from the deep regions that Simone DeBeauvoir would write about in The Second Sex. Sometimes it seems we have forgotten this.
The act of writing is in itself and act of clarifying. In memoir, to write one’s past is to clarify it, to put it in perspective, to own our memories and our narrative. This might mean that we have to take them back or revise them. The same goes for any type of writing where we may have subsequent revisions to our ideas. It might mean that our memory, or point of view, is so vastly different from those that were there at the time, perhaps radically so, that we need to consider other points of view. Regardless, the act of taking back our memories is in itself a revolutionary one.
Of course, taking possession of one’s memory is not an isolated act. If we share them, members of one’s family can be hurt. Most of us have considered waiting before airing out the “dirty” laundry of a family; implying that one’s memory is “dirty” may be a reason why the act (and publication) of memoir writing is so much needed. The telling of one’s story is just that: a story. Memoir, like all writing, is a point of view.
As I write I think of all the autobiographical narratives and memoirs that have been silenced for fear of reproach and punishment, whether it be in the form of political retribution and punishment, economic disenfranchisement, societal condemnation, or disapproving parents or siblings. And I think of how needed and inspiring the memoirs and narratives of the world are. I think about how very empty my own life would be if I didn’t have and couldn’t read such courageous books.
I think of the many novels and poems, articles and songs that have spoke to moments of my own life, ones that have me experience that I am not alone in my experience. Narratives and stories that moved from surviving a difficult circumstance or traumatic experience to thriving and finding a new way to live. Stories that had me believe, and know, that I too can move through a painful moment or experience and that I can move into a present and future that is narrated and created of my own design.
And I am grateful. I am grateful for anyone that tells their story and point of view, especially when it involves being vulnerable. And I am grateful for all who read books and memoirs, stories and narratives … for it is in your reading and listening that we get to discover and rediscover ourselves as we write.