Among other skills, US teacher Kaylie Jones runs memoir-writing workshops. At the first one I attended, she explained that the good memoirist uses the omniscient Eye to watch over the more personal ‘I’ of the narrator. In seconds flat, she was at the whiteboard drawing an eye in the sky that observed and informed the stick figure ‘I’ she had sketched below; the stick figure being the more personal – even sentimental or naive – ‘I’ of the writer.
What she meant was that the memoirist must keep a watchful eye on the narrator in order to achieve a certain distance. This is a helpful way of objectifying, but not lessening, the heartfelt memories and feelings we may wish to convey. I breathed a sigh of relief at this lesson, knowing that I could detach from my smaller, more vulnerable self.
The paradox, as Kaylie explained, is that while you must remember what it was like to be that child or teenager – and immerse the reader in it – conversely you strengthen your story by taking a more meta view. I might, for example, remember the worry I felt when my father attempted to teach me at six to swim by the ‘sink or swim’ method. ‘Is that how you taught the troops in the Middle East during the war? I wanted to ask him as I flailed about in the sea before sinking to the bottom. With a new level of adult detachment I can remember how that child in me felt, while keeping a watchful eye on her.
Employing such a method can be liberating as we learn to see ourselves as characters in our own stories. It can enable the kind of freedom that writing fiction might afford, only in this case, it’s all true.