Episode 1: the presence of the ‘I’ in memoir and creative nonfiction

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One of the challenges of writing memoir and other forms of narrative nonfiction* is how much presence the ‘I’ should have as the narrator, at any moment in the text.  With some manuscripts, writers feel comfortable making themselves central. Others find they want to hide themselves away, and have as little presence as possible. It can be challenging to find a rationale or an organic logic for being more present, or less, at different points in the narrative.

In this post, I do a close reading of two extracts from a recent Australian work of memoir and cultural critique by Lee Kofman, and look at how the narrative has been constructed around this question of the presence of the narrator.

First though, here is one of my favourite tools-of-trade, a pictogram from Writing True, the art and craft of creative nonfiction (Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz). It cuts through to the heart of the matter with clarity and immediacy. The pictogram indicates the range of degrees of presence a narrator can have in a creative nonfiction work. It’s relevant to both memoir and narrative/creative nonfiction written in First Person.

Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz, Writing True, the art and craft of creative nonfiction, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p71

The degree of presence (from ‘centre stage’ to ‘off stage’) will depend firstly on the genre and the work’s intentions, but then within it will shift around. The degree of presence isn’t fixed throughout the whole work. The degree to which the narrator will be central will shift from being central to peripheral at various points in the narration.

This example I’ll discuss now is by Australian author Lee Kofman’s work of memoir and cultural critique, Imperfect: How our Bodies Shape the People We Become.

In my next two posts, I’ll go on to look at the next to two pictograms with other examples and discussion.

I’: centre stage 

Imperfect is a work of memoir and cultural critique. The author introduces us to the notion of imperfect bodies through her own body, then works outwards into the world of others whose bodies are in some way imperfect, and to art, culture, media, history. A pattern of moving between the personal ‘centre stage’ I and then the other degrees of presence of the I is repeated.

   And then, there was that afternoon in summer, with the mango-yellow light filtering through the blinds…. 

   Outside our window, the city of my youth shimmered with sunshine and sea. Israel had been my home for fourteen years before I moved to Australia. Nostalgia usually wasn’t my forte, but on that particular afternoon I could almost forget that this was a wounded place, a place intermittently at war. That is, until my lover asked the question, as unexpected as a bomb. My leg… 

   I could see that the light I’d been admiring illuminated clearly, clinically, my carelessly exposed limb — my enemy. I have other scars on my body, but my left leg has always been the apex of my concerns. It can lay no claim to normality. Between the keloid scar that runs through my knee and the large dent in place of a torn-out muscle just above my ankle, the remaining surface is a tapestry of re-grown, blotched skin…I quickly drew our damp sheet over myself.  

   This body. It was always letting me down. 

   I felt so ashamed I couldn’t look into my lover’s eyes.

Lee Kofman, Imperfect: How our bodies shape the people we become, Affirm Press, 2019, 2

In the opening essay the narrator is centre stage: the reader is taken very intimately into the bed with her and her lover. The scarred body that she hides and is ashamed of as a young woman is described and revealed. That is the point of her book after all, to reflect on our conceptions of imperfection and beauty. The narrator is central in terms of the setting: her physiognomy and private thoughts. At the same time though, cultural context as setting and as metaphor is woven in: ‘this was a wounded place…the question, as unexpected as a bomb’. What we can see from this brief extract is that even when a passage is very intimate about the writer, it can also be speaking out to the world, situating the speaker in nuanced ways within a particular wider world. 

What we can see from this brief extract is that even when a passage is very intimate, it can also be speaking out to the world.

The narrative takes up all positions of the ‘I’ at various points in the book, but most often moves between the first three. In this next sample from Imperfect, Kofman shows how her own experience informs how she specifically, uniquely sees the world. It is the narrator’s imperfections and experience of living with her own mutilating scars that gives her the vantage point and the insight to see the world anew. This is writing at its best, when the narrator shows us something familiar, presenting it from an unexpected perspective.

…I’d searched again and again for female role models to show me that attractive, or a least ‘normal’, femininity can co-exist with mutilations. I searched books, films, television, but I could find no one. Even now, I’m still on the lookout for women with imperfections resembling my own; but as common as scars are, I rarely see them on the street or at the beach. It’s as if we’ve all signed an agreement to keep out of the public eye. The walls of the Louvre and the Metropolitan…hold no paintings of ravaged beauties either…Plenty of artists have painted women in agony, women suffering injury or torture — all that Eros lurking in pain and blood. But how many have shown the permanent ways in which sounding stamps the flesh?

Lee Kofman, Imperfect: How our bodies shape the people we become, Affirm Press, 2019, 45
Photo of Frida Kahlo painting The Two Fridas
Frida Kahlo is one of the few artists who represented her injuries and wounds in her artworks. Photo by Tina Modotti, of Frida Kahlo painting The Two Fridas, 1939

Here, the ‘I’ —to return to the pictogram— is in the second position of ‘sharing the stage’, the ‘I + others’.

Within a single work you can explore taking up different levels of narrating presence: of making the narrating character central; including other voices and perspectives to share the ‘stage’ of the page; and placing the narrator as an observer yet still present. Each creative work will need different degrees and kinds of presence at different points along the text. These examples and the pictogram are tools to help you see what’s possible and how to apply these techniques. 

Next post: Episode 2: the ‘I’ sharing the stage.

* Narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction are terms that exclude journalism and reportage in which the writer doesn’t have a presence except as a by-line.

My next small-group writing workshop, the Summer 23 Writing Workshop, starts later this month (enrolments still open). Get in touch to find out more.

Author: Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

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