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Creating a compelling narrative voice

How does an author of memoir or personal narrative transform a naked self into a compelling voice that tells a story readers can’t put down?

This question arises frequently in my work as a developmental editor.

One of best books on this technique is The Situation and the Story: the Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick, author of the memoir Fierce Attachments about her struggle to be independent of her mother.

In The Situation, Gornick shows how to pull from the raw material of a writer’s life and create a “truth-speaking narrator” to tell the story.

I underlined my own copy so much that some of the pages are covered in red ink.

Get an attitude

The trick is to create a fictional “I” narrator with an attitude. This new character sets out on a journey of self-discovery that’s informed by the hindsight of a current understanding of what happened. “This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject,” Gornick says.

She analyzes how writers like Edmund Gosse, Geoffrey Wolff, Joan Didion and others succeed in telling their stories so well. “In each case the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve the insight.”

In Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed” from her book The White Album, Gornick shows us how the author uses her own “depressed, quivering persona” and personal experience with debilitating migraines to create a narrative voice uniquely qualified to expel the conventional view of these chronic headaches as malingering or imaginary. But then Didion’s insights go much further, discovering the painful migraine’s “usefulness” as a distraction from something even worse: the mundane “guerrilla war” of her daily life. The headache becomes a purge of sorts, followed at last by a grateful peace. Didion’s skill as a writer elevates the personal to a universal truth with which many can identify.

It’s not easy to construct a narrative persona. Gornick describes it as a character we can trust to “bring us out into a clearing where the sense of things is larger than it was before.”

This reminded me of Toni Morrison’s first book The Bluest Eye, which I acquired and edited. A young woman’s distinct and yearning voice begins with a deep melancholy that takes us through 200 pages of shocking drama and leaves us ultimately with an impossible but utterly credible resolution. Only a voice with that kind of power could achieve this tour de force. Read it, if you haven’t, and see what you think.

How to do it

Here are some of Gornick’s insights and her advice for authors.


Creating a compelling narrative persona

• Lie down on the couch but never treat the reader as your analyst. Weed out the defensive, embarrassed, self-pitying, insecure, self-aggrandizing, or complaining. Then bring us your conclusions about what were once mixed feelings and are now clear insights.

• Weave a story of discovery and definition. Remember that your memoir or personal narrative should relate a journey from an unfinished self to a purposeful being, warts and all.

• Think about your voyage in terms that Gornick calls “involuntary truth telling”. You didn’t realize at the outset what you are able to tell us now. The reader moves with you from ignorance to truth.

• Illuminate the small moments and telling details that illustrate the deeper meaning of what are otherwise random events.

• Welcome the dramatic buildup of uncertain outcomes and unresolved conflict. Readers will empathize and identify with this kind of reality, regardless of how the curtain falls.

Not confession but self-investigation

When writing a memoir or personal narrative you’re involved “not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation,” Gornick says. “Be honest about your own part in the situation, your fear, whining or self-hatred.”

As an example, she cites George Orwell’s personal essay “Shooting an Elephant” in which he describes his duties during the early 1920s as an English colonial police officer in Lower Burma. Called upon to deal with a rogue elephant’s lethal rampage, he kills the beast. The event becomes a bloody metaphor for both the decline of the British Empire and the terror young Orwell feels before his senior officers who consider the elephant more valuable than any dead Indian.

Orwell’s narrator becomes in Gornick’s words “the one who implicates himself not because he wants to but because he has no choice.”

More tips for writers

Memoir and personal narrative are very popular among authors and readers. Here are some more useful tips from other writers and memoirists.

The most important character of all in nonfiction is the narrator, especially in memoir. The narrator, of course, is you. But you as a character.” –Richard Goodman (The Writer’s Chronicle, V. 40, #2)

The more deeply one reflects about one’s own life, the more one realizes one’s connections to other people, other species, other times. Such reflection is in fact an antidote to self-absorption. – Scott Russell Sanders (The Writer’s Chronicle, V. 41. #1)

The crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence but truth cannot. – Toni Morrison (Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir)


What about you?

Are you developing a persona for a memoir or other work of personal narrative?  If you’re not already familiar with The Situation and the Story, check it out.  It’s a book that has helped many writers.

I’ve worked with quite a few authors of memoirs and I know there are different approaches that work. Tell me about your experience. I welcome your comments and will watch for any questions.


  1. says

    You have given me quite a lot to think about. Your points make for a logical well thought out path towards writing a memoir. My children’s story is about an immigrant child who had been influenced by her artist grandfather. However, once in America, it’s her mother’s words that causes the child to become an artist. I’ve been told by my writing group to focus on the grandfather as the only influential person in the child’s life, and turn this into fiction. Do you ever recommend changing memoirs to fiction to improve the story? Thanks.
    BTW: Thank you so much for these wonderful posts.

  2. says

    This is quite a concept – this narrator as character with attitude to bring power and message to the story. Excellent tips, especially for anyone wanting to publish their memoir. I’m saving this post, and passing it on.

  3. says


    Changing a memoir into fiction doesn’t necessarily improve the story, it just allows you to use elements of your underlying material in a story that isn’t true.

    In your case, it sounds like your mother was as influential as your grandfather in how you decided to become an artist. So if you’re trying to tell your own story, how could you leave her out? On the other hand, the novel would give you license to invent a different character who was only influenced by the grandfather.

    Ultimately, the decision to tell your story as opposed to someone else’s is your call.

  4. says

    Thank you for this post. I am working on a memoir piece, culled from three+ years of writing following my daughter’s gender transition and death. The problem I am currently struggling with is that much of the writing seems more therapy than story. I am in the process of stripping it down and then building it back up. Separating myself from myself remains a struggle, but the post and Vivian Gornick’s insights give me great food for thought.

  5. says

    The memoir I’m writing is based on my mother’s anecdotes, which she repeated over and over. It starts with her birth in Czarist Russia during WWI. I’m using third person, my grandmother, and telling the story from that point of view. As for truth and fiction, I’ve been researching the time and place to bring my mother’s stories to life. So, is it memoir or fiction? I’m writing it as a novel, inspired by all these wonderful stories of what happened during that terrible time in history.

  6. says


    Sounds like fiction to me. It’s based on your mother’s anecdotes but told from your grandmother’s point of view. You’re using your own research, moreover, to find details that bring the story to life. So why call it a memoir?

    A memoir can only be from your perspective. If it’s your mother’s memoir, it’s a biography – not a memoir. Accepting that the work is fiction allows you to focus, omit, contract, invent and create other new elements to build the story.

    Ultimately you have to decide whether you want a faithful record or an historical novel.

  7. says

    When I wrote my memoir Wordjazz for Stevie – about the explosion into my life of Stevie, my daughter who was born with Down’s syndrome and who went on to suffer brain damage when an open heart op went wrong – I didn’t really have time to consider how to create a narrational persona. But I did know that the standard, literal, chronological, objective description was not going to work. The only way I could tell the truth – the emotionally true truth – was to address my story directly to Stevie herself. By visualising who I was writing for and to I gave myself a voice, a tone.

    In doing this, of course, I was doing what you advise. But if I were advising someone who wanted to write a memoir I would first ask them – who is it you are particularly talking to? What is it you want them to know? How are you going to get them to know – not just the ‘facts’ but the truth. And most truths are complicated so how do you let the complications in.

  8. kerri dieffenwierth says

    Thanks for the insightful article. I’m working on a memoir of my childhood – growing up at the edge of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in Florida, homemade rodeos, pets getting eaten by alligators. Lots of material!

    I’ve “completed” about 13 essays that stand on their own. The daunting structual part for me is braiding in the reflection/lessons learned/making sense of it all. The narrator is definitely a strong, clear child’s voice and the reflection would be adult.

    I’s just so tricky. Any thoughts?

  9. says


    I wouldn’t continue to think about what you’ve done so far as “essays” that stand on their own. Sounds to me that this draft needs to be converted to narrative story telling with dialogue, action, visual descriptions, smells and tactile sensations, all of which your childhood would seem to provide.

    Let go of it, and forget about explaining anything. Just tell the story with the insight you have now, carefully selecting only those moments that add up to your message — whether it be overcoming loss and grief, coming-of-age, cautionary, or inspirational.

    Tricky indeed, but that’s the art of memoir.

  10. says

    I feel like a bumblebee — flying because no one told me I couldn’t. I completed my memoir “Diamond in the Dark” in September 2011. It was almost three years in the writing, if counting the respites I needed to recouperate from digging into those trauma filled childhood memories, the domestic violence, and my struggle to escape. My first responsibility was to make sure my book was vetted for any potential legal issues, so I hired a publishing attorney to vet my manuscript. I count this as my first sign of good fortune that ushered me into the world of being published. While vetting away, Bruce Bortz of Bancroft Press said he became “hooked” within the first few chapters. Bancroft Press has agreed to publish my manuscript and I am hoping it will be available by the end of 2012. I hope you will enjoy reading a story of hope which celebrates the resilience of women. — “Diamond in the Dark”, an autobiography, with this description: With a dazzling smile and a pretty face, a Southern girl tells her true story of growing up in the midst of violence and abuse. Phyllis frankly chronicles her struggle to survive by creating two personas―one for the darkness of home, the other for the brilliance of life. Persistence and physical beauty open a path to escape and lead her to love, money, murder, trials, and prison, before she finds happiness and summons the strength to confront the demons of the past and the darkness of truth.

  11. says

    The line “Not confession but self-examination” leaps out at me as one of the best synopses of the craft I have seen. I love the points you have made in this generously constructed essay. After five years of analyzing memoirs and writing and revising my own, I find that the method you suggest arises organically as I seek to turn my life into story, and seek to understand the way other people have done the same.

    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  12. Erik Spellmeyer says

    I’ve recently read a series of memoirs by Simone De Beauvoir. She demonstrates the transition from a young “dutiful daughter” into the intellectual icon of the French existential movement. It is one of the more gripping memoirs I’ve ever read. Although the many volumes consist of something like 3,000 pages, each is a page turner. Her insight into her situation as a reflective narrator through some of the most tumultuous times in modern European history, are told with poise and a stern resolution. What the reader can take from her memoirs is exactly that presence of identity and autonomy so difficult to capture in a narration. I strongly recommend having a look.


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