Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

Voice of the Memoir

on January 17, 2011

One of my goals for 2011 is to write a memoir about working with the youth at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. I’m trying to answer the question I receive a lot: So, why exactly do you like to run poetry, writing, and literature workshops with youth in a juvenile detention center? From outside appearances, I don’t really look like someone who would have a “juvie story.”  I’m a suburban, middle-class writer who grew up in St Louis suburbia.  I didn’t actually know anyone who had been in juvenile detention (Okay, so my brother served a small stint for a little lawn mowing stealing incident), and, yes, I know, stealing Mom’s Famous Barr credit card and charging Jordach Jeans and lying about it is crime, but, still, overall, I seemed to have a pretty, squeaky clean story. Or that’s what I liked to tell myself.

I’ve been dancing around this idea of a memoir for awhile. I’ve taken a class on writing the working memoir at Richard Hugo House and  I’ve taken an on-line class, Sudden Stories From Life with Sheila Bender. Last September, I had the opportunity to hear Sue Silverman speak at the Orcas Island Writing Conference. She is the author of two memoirs, Love Sick and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, and she has a book on writing memoir called, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.

Today, I spread out all my notes on my dinning room table. It’s my favorite place to spread out my projects because I have a great view of the Lake and mountains. But today, it was pouring rain, so I couldn’t see across the Lake most of the afternoon. Forget seeing the mountains.  Those have been buried in clouds for days.

As I went back through my notes, I noticed right away that I was struggling with the voice. So, I turned to Sue Silverman’s book, Fearless Confession, chapter five. Silverman describes a memoir’s voice as The Voice of Innocence and The Voice of Experience.  The Voice of Innocence is the horizontal plot line, it is the voice that tells the story of what happened, the events. The Voice of Experience is the vertical plot line. It’s the voice that interprets or reflects upon the events. (p.51).

Okay, so I got that part. I can see those voices in memoirs that I read. But I was still struggling. Who is the voice that I am using for this memoir?

And then, I found the exercises at the end of Chapter Five where Silverman writes, Just as events are chosen for specfic plots ,you explore specific aspects of yourself, selecting only those character traits that best represent your persona in that particular memoir or essay. Ask yourself:

Which character traits are necessary to best portray myself in this situation? Who is the appropriate self or persona to tell this story?

Aha! I quickly moved away from my reading and notes, and onto the computer for a brainstorm session. And what I discovered was that for this particular memoir, I am writing out of my later teen years. That’s it.  For this memoir, I am writing from my teen years of seventeen through twenty. Those are the years when my character traits and persona best mirrored the youth in the detention center, and that will be the voice for the memoir…which after all makes sense…I write for teens. Why wouldn’t my teen voice be the one who tells this memoir story!


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