For memoirists, the concept of voice is a little complicated.
In her Brevity essay, Sue William Silverman talks about the two voices memoirists must employ in their manuscripts—the voices of innocence and experience. The voice of innocence is the voice of the character living through a situation. The voice of experience helps us understand what the situation means.
These are in addition to the ethereal capital “V” voice agents and publishers love to talk about—the one that’s a unique combination of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and style.
Innocence, experience, and capital “V” voice show up on the page. They are part of the craft of writing we need to cultivate.
But as a memoirist and coach, I’ve also discovered a few internal voices that can influence the way we tell our stories. If we pay attention, we can capitalize on their wisdom while avoiding their pitfalls.
1. The False Prophet
The False Prophet wants to help others and has a clear vision for the story. Sometimes this voice describes a project as a memoir with a strong self-help bent. Chapters are filled with hard-earned wisdom and lessons learned by an author who has already survived and arrived.
Unfortunately, the False Prophet isn’t keen on vulnerability.
Its rehearsed stories are dominated by a pseudo-voice of experience that weakens the story’s dramatic tension. Because the False Prophet thinks it’s beyond the story’s conflict, it tries to portray every character in the best possible light—often avoiding certain characters’ bad behavior or psychoanalyzing them as if the story is a kumbaya sing-along where we’re handing out compassion for all.
When readers encounter these stories, their BS meters spike to eleven because they intuitively know this version is superficial.
It might sound like the False Prophet is a real douche who’s screwing up your project, but that’s not true.
Sometimes the prophet doesn’t understand that stories require conflict or that readers learn vicariously by living through the narrator’s experience. It might not know that real answers and insights are discovered through the writing process.
More often, the prophet wants to protect you from a level of vulnerability you’re not ready for.
The False Prophet appears when your heart is closed to the hurt you’ve experienced, or it’s not sure how to deal with the difficult parts in your story. Allowing the False Prophet to speak in early drafts gives you a chance to ease into the vulnerability memoir requires.
In future drafts, you can open up more by asking yourself the following questions:
- Do you fear judgment from others?
- Are you worried you’ll judge yourself?
- Does your story include one or more traumatic events?
- If so, should you consider working with a therapist?
2. The Wounded One
Because many memoirs arise from deep wounds where someone has done us wrong, these are the oaths experienced memoirists often pledge:
I will not write from a grudge.
I will not lie.
I will not unnecessarily dump my trauma on the reader.
Sometimes we begin with the False Prophet because we’re trying to live up to this pledge. But at some point, you’ll need to let the Wounded One share its story.
This vulnerable voice expresses painful and traumatic stories living inside the body. Because this voice was silenced when terrible events occurred, it sees a world filled with victims, good guys, and bad guys. Sometimes the only way it knows to express body-level memories is to share a “terrible thing” from beginning to end.
In early drafts, let the Wounded One speak—even if it leads to flat characters and unfocused scenes. Once these stories live on the page, you can revise them. When you’re ready, find readers who can bear witness to this version of your story so you can trade pain and catharsis for deeper insights.
If you find yourself writing beginning-to-end renditions of traumatic events, consider a therapist as your first reader. They’re trained to help you find meaning inside traumatic experiences—something many writers aren’t equipped to do.
3. The Investigator
After you’ve shed the False Prophet and let the Wounded One speak, it’s time to call in The Investigator. With its help, you’ll discover the story that frames your experience.
- Wild: My mom died. I trashed my life and then went on a hike.
- In the Dream House: I thought I met the love of my life, but this person almost destroyed me.
The Investigator is curious. Like a detective, it researches, interrogates, and evaluates each rehearsed section, looking for “aha” moments. It doesn’t refute what’s already been written. Instead, it asks what else is true.
In situations where someone has behaved badly, The Investigator asks:
- What wound is this antagonist compensating for?
- Is this scene essential and thoroughly explored?
- What don’t I know about this situation?
- What decisions did the narrator make?
- How did these decisions inform the story?
- If I’m the one who behaved badly, am I portraying myself fairly?
If the False Prophet continues to dominate, The Investigator asks:
- Is there an aspect of this story that doesn’t feel safe?
- What support do I need while I dig deeper?
One your investigations are complete, it’s time to truly write your book.
4. The Wise One
This voice uses everything The Investigator unearths to form the story that frames your experience. You’ll know The Wise One is speaking when you can examine your draft objectively. While some parts might still feel cringeworthy or like a gut punch, you know they belong to the narrator.
Vivian Gornick calls the story the meaning underpinning your experiences. It’s the X in Marion Roach Smith’s memoir formula.
Stories can be distilled into one sentence. They frequently tap into a universal experience like belonging, forgiveness, grief, love, or identity. Stories in memoir look like this:
- Wild: It’s about the unbearable nature of grief and how we carry it.
- In the Dream House: It’s about how traumatic love objectifies us.
The Wise One cuts ruthlessly, frames precisely, and manages scenes efficiently as it crafts a compelling story. But even when the Wise One speaks, we haven’t necessarily arrived. Drafting a memoir is not a linear process. Sometimes we reach later stages only to learn there’s something else to investigate or maybe the Wounded One has more to say. The key to moving through the memoir stages is to recognize the voices when they’re speaking, listen to what they have to say, and then use those insights to inform the story.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.