The Tricky Issue of POV in Memoir

POV in memoir

Today’s guest post is by freelance editor Sarah Chauncey (@SarahChauncey).


Every story is about transformation. The main character’s journey changes them in some way; that arc, in turn, affects the character’s perception of the world around them.

In memoir, you are that main character. While fiction writers can invent entire worlds and determine how much of that world is revealed to the narrator, memoir is expected to be first-person (most of the time) and to reflect the author’s truth (all the time).

While fiction writers can play with unreliable narrators (narrators who are either lying or don’t have the self-awareness to realize that their perceptions are inaccurate), memoir readers expect that the narrator is being honest in each moment; this provides a sense of internal coherence and enables the reader to trust the narrator. If you break the reader’s trust, you’ve lost not only that reader, but also their recommendation of your memoir to others.

Memoir Is About a Shift in Perspective

In memoir, you’re using the events from a period in your life to articulate a shift in perspective on a universal theme—identity, family, overcoming odds, death, love, aging, etc.

Memoir is about inner transformation. The outer events of a memoir, no matter how dramatic, are scaffolding for the author’s emotional journey. That emotional journey (by definition) means that your perspective changed on certain themes from the beginning to the end—from seeing your family through a child’s eyes to an adult understanding (The Glass Castle), arrogance toward Mt. Everest to humility (Into Thin Air), identity as a daughter to an independent self (Wild). Memoir reveals the inner transformation that changed the way you perceived the world around you—yet in each scene, you are limited to what you thought, felt, sensed and experienced at the time.

Exercise: Create a timeline of the period covered in your memoir. In the early scenes and chapters, and in flashbacks if you use them, identify scenes that emphasize how you were before this inner transformation—such as arrogant, fearful, innocent, conforming to an expected identity, or whatever your starting point was.

Author and Narrator POV Are Different (Usually)

Author POV creates the story; Narrator POV tells the story. Sometimes the two are close together; at other times (more often) the two are separated by a period of years or decades.

Out of the facts of a given situation or time period, there are an infinite number of stories that can be told. (For more on this, read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story.) Even if your memoir covers an earlier part of your life, your current perspective (Author POV) informs the story you choose to tell, the scenes you select to bring that story to life, and the tone with which you tell it.

However, within the story, your character—past-you—is the narrator. Your Narrator POV is limited to what you knew and experienced at the time of each scene.

While it’s possible to write memoir from your Author POV (relative omniscience, because you know more today than you did then), the most engaging memoirs are ones in which the author sticks to their POV at the moment of events.

It’s okay to occasionally insert a comment that reflects your awareness today (for example, “Later, I would learn…”), but only if necessary, and don’t do it in the middle of a scene. Stick to the facts, describe events as evocatively as possible, and let the reader draw their own conclusion. If the writing is strong, the reader will feel what you felt.

Narrator POV Is Both Fixed and Fluid

First-person POV is fixed, in that it’s limited to what you knew and experienced at the time of a given scene. However, the fact that your perspective changed over time is what makes memoir a story. Our perspective is fluid and ever-changing, based on our life experiences. You are not exactly the same person today that you were yesterday, or ten years ago. The way you saw your spouse, for example, and interpreted their behavior, was not the same on the day you met as on the day you filed for divorce.

In each scene and each chapter, then, your POV on your theme is ever-so-slightly different. Not about everything, necessarily—you’re still you, and you may still have the same political views, or the same love of nature. But your attitude in relation to the memoir’s theme will evolve. We need to see how you got from there to here. Don’t tell us what shifted; show us the shift through the way you-as-narrator perceives the events that unfold. For a master class in this, read Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle.

Exercise: To create the most powerful story, use your perspective today to identify scenes that were aha moments, where your perspective on your theme changed. The moment when you faced a fear directly. The moment you escaped someone else’s expectations. The moment you realized you were in love with the wrong person. If you focus first on the inner journey, you’ll find the best scenes to bring that transformation to life.

Memoir Includes Multiple POVs

We’ve already established that you have an Author POV and a Narrator POV. You also have all the Narrator POVs that take place within your story—which are different in each scene, and particularly different in each flashback. In general, the older you are, and the more time periods covered in your memoir (including flashbacks), the more POVs you will be wrangling.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed (the author, who was significantly older than her narrator-self) had Hiker Cheryl (“present day” in the book) who transformed along her journey; there were Younger Cheryls (childhood, student, and then caring for her mother); and there was post-Mom, pre-hike Cheryl (who had her own arc with grief and drugs). Because Strayed was 27 on the Pacific Crest Trail, and her mother had only died five years earlier, the author was dealing with a relatively brief time frame. If you’re in your fifties, and your memoir includes multiple flashbacks, you might have a dozen or more POVs within the overall story.

Limit POV Appropriately

Your task is to bring the reader into your body, so they can see what you saw, feel what you felt, each step of the way. Imagine yourself as a virtual reality camera: In each scene, including flashbacks, you’re limited to what information came into that camera, and how you experienced and interpreted it at the time.

The period of your life covered by your memoir makes sense to you because you lived it (though often people write memoir to make sense of what’s changed in them). The reader, too, needs to make sense of the changes you undergo during the period covered by your story. Your task is to not to tell them what happened; it’s to bring them along on the journey so they can experience it for themselves.

This is particularly tricky if you’re using flashbacks. Nearly every memoir manuscript I’ve edited has included flashbacks in which the author refers to something in their childhood world from their adult perspective—for example, “my tiny hands.” As a child, it’s unlikely you would call your own hands “tiny” because your frame of reference for the world is your own body. It’s more likely you might see an adult’s hands as gigantic.

Use Dialogue to Flesh Out Blind Spots

Most of us live our lives in the context of other people, each of whom has their own perspective at any given moment. Think of conversations you had, things that people said to you that might have made you angry at the time, or given you pause. Or maybe you didn’t think twice about it at the time, but now it’s bubbling up. You can use dialogue (as long as it actually happened) to show, rather than tell, how others saw you—even if you didn’t have the self-awareness at the time to see it.

I worked with a client whose memoir covered three and a half months he spent alone in the wilderness after his dream business failed. He saw himself as a spiritual seeker, yet when his girlfriend at the time came to visit him after a month, she said, “My god, Greg, if people didn’t know you, they’d think you were some kind of anarchist.” This one line was in stark contrast to how he had been portraying himself, and it gave the scene—and him as a character—a depth that his self-description alone couldn’t.

Where possible, flesh out conversations by checking with the other person or people involved. This author later reached out to the woman to see if they could re-construct some of the conversations they’d had during that time period—30 years prior.

Parting advice

Storytelling is a misnomer. You’re not telling a story to friends over beers; you’re bringing the reader into your body so they can see what you saw, feel what you felt. To do that effectively, you need to understand your POV and remain true to it in each scene. Maintaining a cohesive POV throughout will keep the reader engaged and allow them to take your journey with you.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Sarah Chauncey is a creative nonfiction writer, editor and writing coach. She helps narrative nonfiction authors elevate their writing through techniques from literary nonfiction, journalism, theatre, long and short fiction, screenwriting for film and television, and digital media. Read her blog for more writing tips, or follow her on Facebook.

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Linda Moore Kurth

What great advice on creating backstory. That was my greatest hurdle in writing my memoir. I was greatly influenced by Wild. I read a quote from Stayed that she was always mindful of keeping people on the hike with her, even when writing backstory.

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you, Linda. That’s a great quote and way of phrasing things (not surprising, coming from her!)

Steve Law
Steve Law

Thank you so much, Sarah! I’ve been writing a memoir-travelogue. It was an overland trip from London across Africa to Cape Town followed by a yacht crossing to Brazil and culminating in my engagement to a Peruvian woman. I’m using a journal from the time. Now I see how I need to structure it as a series of developments in my character: aha moments and the people who influenced me. Let me express my appreciation .

Sarah Chauncey

I’m so glad you found this helpful, Steve. That sounds like quite a journey, both inner and outer! I’ve always found journals to be immensely helpful as source material. Being able to see how your perspective changed across locations, too, is fascinating. Best of luck with your memoir!

Steve Mattus

This is incredibly helpful to read! I’m very early into my journey of writing, but what I learned here is likely to advance the quality of my writing several levels. I especially appreciate your wisdom on POV and bringing the reader into my body to see, feel, taste, experience the world as I was at the time I was having the experience. That’s not how I typically write (at least not consciously), so that’s going to bring that forward and make my memoir better. Thank you!

Sarah Chauncey

Thanks so much, Steve! You’re definitely not alone–while some people can intuitively go back and inhabit their younger selves and POVs, many start by writing from their current perspective (which is a fine starting point–anything to get a first draft on paper!). It’s a fine balance, back and forth.

Michael A Conniff

This is a very good and that iuseful piece and I am a strong believer of writing “on the body” as the final graf suggests. But tha.t is not a replacement or an improvement on storytelling. How the writer or characters are feeling is NOT the story.

Kimi

This is so very helpful, Sarah! Thank you for the book suggestions as well. I always find those important in increasing my understanding of concepts.

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you, Kimi. I agree, books that dive deep on a given concept, and others that illustrate it, can help immensely. I also recommend Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments, which might help you see how she brought the concept to life. (It’s also a great read!)

Rose Lochmann
Rose Lochmann

Thank you for this insightful article. This has been most helpful in the clarification of the nuances of understanding POV in memoir. It makes me want to go back and redo all of my writing, but instead, I will apply it moving forward.

Sarah Chauncey

I’m so glad you found this helpful, Rose. Oh wow, if I could go back and redo…so much! I understand that feeling, and your decision to apply it moving forward is a wise one.

Norah Wakula
Norah Wakula

Thanks so much, Sarah. I’m really struggling with POV, and the voice. I started with the sassy, know it all (but, of course really knew nothing) 22 year old self/voice but wasn’t sure if I could sustain it. I’m thinking as ‘she’ moves through the experiences that perspective/voice will shift. The distinction between Author POV and Narrator POV is very helpful. Again, thanks.

Sarah Chauncey

That is such a challenge, Norah, and I’m glad you found the distinction helpful. I think you’ve tapped into something universal, in that we all look back and cringe a bit at how know-it-all we were at that age (or just us? Haha). Good luck with your writing.

Pat Aube Gray
Pat Aube Gray

What an insightful article! I am just fleshing out my interest in writing memoir and this is extremely informative advice. I am enrolled in a memoir class next month and plan to refer back to this article again and again. Thank you!

Sarah Chauncey

Thanks so much, Pat! I’m glad you found it helpful. Congratulations on getting started and enrolling in a class.

DeBonis Karen

EXACTLY the advice I needed. Thanks for your words of wisdom, Sarah!

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you, Karen.

Cheryl Potts
Cheryl Potts

Am planning on writing a fictional memoir, from a famous (no longer living) person’s POV. Have not started it yet, but mind is working. this article is most helpful.

Sarah Chauncey

A fictional memoir (posthumous, no less) sounds interesting, Cheryl. Percolation time is so important. I’m so glad you found this helpful, and best of luck with it!

Liesbet

As I started reading your article (which is a very important, insightful and helpful one for memoir writers), my heart skipped a few beats, as I was worried about what I would read. You see, my memoir is close to being finished and rewriting chunks of it is the last thing I want to do right now. But… phew.. I seem to have incorporated (most) everything you suggest here. I was “in the moment” when I wrote my story, and used the present tense. One of the themes of my travel/relationship memoir is “living in the moment” as I take… Read more »

Sarah Chauncey

Congratulations on being close to finishing, Liesbet. I’m so glad you found this helpful and affirming (I’m a big fan of living in the moment, too.)

Julie H. Ferguson

I facilitate writers’ groups which often have several members writing memoir. Thank you writing this excellent primer on the subject. I will be sending the link to everyone!!

Sarah Chauncey

Thanks so much, Julie. I appreciate it!

Michele Montgomery

I just got around to reading this post. It’s brilliant and so helpful for essay writing. Thank you!

robert gilberg

Great advice—–that I had to learn the hard way: by myself because I wrote both my real memoir and my fictional memoir (yes, it’s true) before yours and other blogs and websites were available. It’s too late for me, but surely in time for many.

Sarah Chauncey

I understand, Robert (I’ve been writing since before there was this wealth of resources, too). I encourage you to keep writing, though. Thank you for your kind words.

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[…] With tips for those writing memoirs, Jane Binns lays out 5 steps to overcoming fears of writing about the deeply personal in your memoir, and Sarah Chauncey addresses the tricky issue of POV in memoir. […]

Greg Dandeneau
Greg Dandeneau

Sarah, for one who is new to writing (me), I read your words like a wilderness survival guide. Yes, as if my (writing) life depends on it! Thanks for all you’ve done & continue to do.

Sarah Chauncey

Thank you Greg 🙂

Jules
Jules

Thank you for an invaluable post. Regarding Using Dialogue to Flesh Out Blind Spots, might this include “inner” dialogue?

Sarah Chauncey

Hi Jules (and thank you) – Inner dialogue, by definition, is your own POV, so it wouldn’t work in this context–bringing forth information about you that you weren’t aware of at the time. There are certainly places where it can work. It’s really easy to overdo it, though, or to lean on it as a crutch. Inner dialogue (either monologue, or imagined dialogue with someone else) should be used judiciously, and only to communicate things that you can’t communicate any other way (through characterization, action, actual dialogue). If you’re remembering an actual conversation, I’d suggest turning that into a scene… Read more »

Katie Dale

I’m conflicted as I just paid a freelance editor to read through and critique my entire manuscript – overall, one of the biggest points he made was that I must narrate from the me of today. Instead of showing scene after scene, I must interpret the experiences and share what I think of them today (in between scenes). Another editor stressed this to me, that because I am writing about my mental illness and breaks from reality, I must decipher to the audience/reader that I’m hallucinating. My gut and heart disagree. If I’m experiencing it for reality in my truth… Read more »

Gil
Gil

With respect to POV, if I’m writing in the third person could you suggest how to make it clear to the reader what is occurring on the protagonist’s mind at any given moment?

Sarah Chauncey

Hi Gil – This could be a whole other blog post, but–speaking very broadly–I believe the most effective way is to create scenes in such a way that the reader will have the same thoughts/questions/reactions as the protagonist. As the author, you have the ability (and responsibility) to direct the reader’s attention. You can reveal the protagonist’s thoughts directly, but that can get heavy-handed very quickly. Almost always, there’s a way to reveal what’s going on internally through action, characterization and dialogue. It also varies depending on whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction (and what genre).

Sarah Chauncey

Hi Katie – That’s a tricky one. I’m sure your editors had reasons for suggesting the present-day approach (possibly because we expect memoir writers to be reliable narrators…except how many of us are truly reliable narrators of our own lives?). I haven’t read the book of A Beautiful Mind, but I recall that in the movie, Nash’s hallucinations were presented as fact (HIS reality) until the moment he realized they weren’t–which was (IMO) a powerful approach. (Because the book is a biography, not a memoir, it may be handled differently). And although this is fiction, you might take a look… Read more »

Jurgen Braunohler
Jurgen Braunohler

What does POV stand for?

Jane Friedman

Point of view