Authorial Voice Critical in a Memoir

Every book you’ll ever read on writing will discuss the importance of developing your authorial “voice.” This is the tone by which you tell your stories — be they novels, magazine features, or news journalism. It is expressive of one’s personality and authorial style, and it’s a what makes one writer distinct from another.

I’m finding this to be truer than usual as I write a memoir.

I developed my authorial voice long ago. Read two of my novels, and you can tell they’re written by the same guy, even if they aren’t in the same series. I use particular turns of phrase and certain sentence structures to make my narratives read in my peculiar way.

The same is true for my blog entries on “Pleading the Phyth” and “The Who Dey Herald.” You read these pieces, and you hear John.

But the memoir is proving more challenging. I’m struggling to get the voice for it I want.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that it is comedy. My fiction is largely action-adventure fare, and there is a certain seriousness to the narrative that the fantasy books I write require.

But in “Secret Identity: My True-Life Adventure as a Superhero,” I’m recounting a humorous anecdote from my childhood, wherein I dressed up as a superhero and snuck out of the house after bedtime to right wrongs. Not only is such an act ludicrous, telling it correctly requires the right touch of absurdity.

I first began writing this piece back in 2011. I conceived it as the first chapter in a larger memoir about what an idiot I was as a kid in the 70’s and as a teenager in the 80’s. My original opening went like this:

When I was in third grade I read this book called Alvin Fernald, Superweasel. It was about a boy who dresses up as a superhero, the titular Superweasel, and goes around trying to stop a chemical company from polluting his town. Everyone was very concerned about pollution in the Seventies. I guess they still are, only now they call it Global Warming.

A couple of things jump out from this passage. First, the lede is really weak. It doesn’t grab the reader, and it doesn’t seem to relate in any interesting way to the story I’m planning to tell. In my defense, I had planned for the book to have a preface, wherein I explained that the stories the reader was about to consume were, despite being insane, completely true. I had planned to establish my absurdist voice there. Still, this wasn’t a good way to open the book.

Second, you can see the foundation of what I wanted to do in the paragraph’s final sentence. My sense of absurd humor starts to peek through when I make the Global Warming joke. But I wait too long to establish that this is going to be a tale of high comedy.

When I began to rework the project, planning to release each chapter as a longer piece that would be sustainable as a series, I knew I was going to have to have a stronger lede. After all, I wouldn’t have the preface to introduce the concept.

I therefore opened the new draft as follows:

A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them I was a superhero. Okay, that’s not exactly true. Up until now, I’ve hardly confessed to anyone that I was once a superhero, so I can’t say for sure how they’d react.

But I bet they wouldn’t believe me. Why would they? Superheroes aren’t real, right? No one dresses up in a costume, wears a mask, and fights crime.

This is a much stronger lede. It raises questions, introduces my basic authorial voice, and sets the stage for a story about a person who once attempted to be a superhero. This gets closer to what I wanted.

But I discovered after getting the manuscript back from my editor that something else was wrong. She noticed it first, and her bringing it up alerted me to the fact that I had another serious rewrite ahead of me.

The problem we discovered is that, despite the absurd approach to a tale about a kid dressing up as a superhero and trying to fight crime, there was way too much adult perspective. For example, consider this passage, only six paragraphs into the narrative:

My obsession with superheroes began at an early age. “Obsession” is an ugly word, implying a certain level of mental illness. Let’s face it, though, we’re talking about an eight-year-old putting on a costume and sneaking out of his parents’ house at night on days other than October 31. Maybe the pejorative fits.

The first two sentences are funny enough. It forwards the whole absurd tone. But after that, what we have, while also funny, is too adult.

I’m riffing on Jean Shepard a bit here. In A Christmas Story and in In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash — the book on which the beloved Christmas movie is based — Shepard narrates the story from the perspective of his nine-year-old self. There is a certain adult sensibility to it, but what makes it work is hearing the child’s perspective. That’s why it’s funny.

My eight-year-old self didn’t realize sneaking out of the house in a superhero costume was insane or stupid. He wouldn’t have done it if he had. Moreover, I had never heard the word, “pejorative,” when I was eight. My adult perspective kept intruding on the story, spoiling the verisimilitude.

The rewrite reads like this:

My obsession with superheroes began at an early age. “Obsession” is an ugly word, implying a certain level of mental illness. I prefer to think of myself as recognizing a certain hole in society and attempting to fill it. After all, we all need heroes.

This version keeps the joke (and the implication) about obsession, but it removes the adult perspective. Now it’s more childlike. Now it keeps up the fun and the humor without blowing the atmosphere.

Authorial voice is critically important in a memoir, I’ve discovered. If you don’t get the right tone, don’t have the proper perspective, the book doesn’t work. Memoirs are very personal stories that reveal the mind of the author. Without the right voice, they fall apart.

Who knew telling your own story would be more difficult than making one up?

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