A memoir teacher once asked me why I didn’t write about myself. Put more of myself into the memoir. “You know,” she said. “Use the “I” word.” Who me? I thought. Put the ‘me’ in memoir? Is the Pope Catholic? Did Tom Ford turn Gucci around? I had been writing around the topic of my father, a World War II veteran, for a number of years. Skirting around the issue of my relationship with him. Telling other people’s stories about their veteran fathers, but never fully telling my own.
One day I took courage and joined a writing group in Melbourne’s south. The members welcomed me (there you see, I said ‘me’) with a minimum of fanfare and much kindness. They were fiction writers who accepted me – a non-fiction writer – into their midst. At one meeting I was reading a story about somebody whose father was also a war veteran, like mine.
“Margaret,” one person asked. “Why are you so reluctant to talk about yourself and your father? Just when you start telling your own story, you veer off and start talking about somebody else, somebody I don’t know and in whom I have little interest.” I had no answer. Honestly, I was shocked. How would you do that? How would you make your own life interesting enough for the page?
At school in the 1950s and 1960s we were taught never to use the “I” word. (You see, I used “we”!) The “I” pronoun was a form of self-indulgence. You never began a piece of writing with “I.” You wrote letters of thanks, acceptance of invitations, even issued invitations, wrote essays, travel stories, but you rarely used the “I” word. It was always ‘you’, ‘we’ or ‘one’. You could mention yourself by name, but usually only at the end of the piece. Most particularly in those days you did not tell the truth about what you were thinking. (But more of that another time.)
Since joining my writing group, I have learned a lot about writing and the process of memoir in particular. I’ve spent time getting comfortable with the subject pronoun “I”, the object “me”, and the possessive pronoun “my”. Slowly I am getting used to the form of personal narrative, but even learning to enjoy it.
This blog contains thoughts on the process of memoir writing. Putting the ‘Me’ in Memoir.