I learned about shame and writing many years ago. I also learned a good lesson about how third person works in memoir — and doesn’t.
A memoir student of mine wrote a story about her family living out of a camper by a river in Tennessee during the 1930s, when she was a child. Other families squatted in that river canyon along with them. The kids played together and families ate their meals over campfires. Above the canyon, posh houses lined tree-lined streets. My student — now in her seventies — had to walk by these houses on her way to school and to the market. Sometimes the kids who lived in them would tease her or even stand at the trailhead to the river and make fun of them (“river rats!”). One day as she hurried past the houses, she tripped and dropped a nickel in one of the front lawns. It was a day she’d never forget.
Mary wrote the story in third person and read it aloud to the class. It sounded like a good short story. No one knew the story was about her. How could we?
Asked why she wrote in third person, Mary teared up. The story had been so hard to write, she said, she had changed the names, including her own, just to be able to write it.
The upside of third person in memoir is it can help you write a hard story, the downside is readers may not know the story isn’t fiction.
Mary went back and rewrote, this time using middle names instead of first names. Sadly, her story still didn’t have that ring of truth, the sound of memoir.I suggested her feelings from 1932 might be rekindled by the writing and reminded her that her readers don’t have the same feelings about it as she had. The story had lived in her memory in the same way for sixty years! Realizing this, she was inspired to try to write her way into a different place with it.
And so she went back and rewrote, this time in first person. The story grew. It deepened. It became more colorful, lost its tone of hurt child and became good storytelling, where the reader could see and hear the child more clearly because there was room. The story didn’t ask for sympathy, it simply told the story and the reader felt sympathy.
More good came from rewriting in first person. It opened the door to details from Mary’s inner world, which added so much to the story. Memoir wants reflection.
When Mary read the first-person draft to the class everyone was wowed. And Mary was glad she did it, too. She learned that shame can have a lifespan. It doesn’t have to follow her all the way through. Rewriting brought a healing she hadn’t even expected.