Monday, January 14, 2019

Paul Zakrzewski: “How Do I Craft a Sophisticated Narrator in a Memoir of Childhood?"

Writing a memoir based in childhood is a tough act to pull off. In my writing workshops, even elderly students tend to lose touch with their adult selves—with the insight or humor I know they otherwise possess—all in the rush to recover sometimes long-neglected memories. And while that lack of a reflective self often occurs in the work of emerging writers, it seems especially marked in stories drawn from childhood.

So not long ago I found myself re-reading a number of favorite books and essays in an attempt to better understand what techniques could help my students. The first stop? Phillip Lopate’s masterful “Reflection & Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story. In this essay, Lopate describes the need for the memoirist to deploy a “double perspective” that allows the reader to “participate in the experience as it was lived, while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”

In previous workshops, I’ve heard this twinned voice described as the “experiencing I” and “the reflective I.” Or, in Sue William Silverman’s excellent formulation, the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience.” What I like most about Lopate’s formulation is just how much emphasis he places on the need for that second, retrospective voice. It’s like the yeast in a memoir, without which the story won’t properly rise:
In any autobiographical narrative…the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight, and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at— these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico.
More than the absence of a psychologically astute narrator, it’s often the limited syntax of my student’s childhood memoirs that feels tedious. Who wants to spend page after page after page with a narrator who’s limited herself to the vocabulary and tedious rhythms of a child? As Lopate himself concludes: “What is important, in writing about childhood, is to convey the psychological outlook you had as a child, not your limited verbal range.”

As wonderful as that advice is, it still begs a question: just how do you pull off the narrator who can convey the child’s narrow psychological range, but is not limited by it? What should that narrator sound like? To understand that, I ended up going to a pair of favorite memoirs whose techniques I’ve now passed along to students.

The first is Sleeping Arrangements, by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a witty and compulsively readable account of the author’s childhood in 1940s Jewish Bronx. Given that Cunningham was herself orphaned by the death of her single mother at age 10, sent to live with a pair of bachelor uncles, this book could’ve easily veered into the same maudlin or sentimental trap that can afflict student work.

Instead, Cunningham’s voice is funny, clear-sighted, gently ironic. Her narrator is a real storyteller—funny, adventurous, and remarkably free of self-pity; notable given some of the darker territory she occasionally veers into. I picked the Cunningham example for students precisely because there’s so clearly an adult intelligence shaping this narrator’s voice.

So, how does the writer of the childhood memoir open the “aperture” of the narrator in a way that permits both the child and adult perspectives into the frame? Cunningham does this by limiting the visual scope of what her narrator conveys. She describes her 10-year-old self’s physical world; we get to see things from her height, so to speak. But—and this is the crucial achievement—it is filtered through her current-day, mature perspective:
AnaMor Towers did not stand alone. The entire neighborhood was a cross section of ersatz bygone cultures. In the park, marble mermaids lounged, with rust running down their navels. Public buildings were supported by semi-nude figures, wearing New Deal chitons. Many of the apartment buildings were modern Towers of Babel, mixing details from Ancient Rome, Syria, Greece.
Here is the child’s limited field of vision, the attention to the kind of object that would interest the child—mermaids, blocky apartment buildings—but described by an amused, historically-minded adult.

A similar technique shows up in another favorite of mine, George Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys.” It’s impossible to forget the litany of humiliations that young George suffers at the hands of school administrators and older boys. But what makes this essay such a masterpiece is the easy, clearly-sighted way that Orwell traces those torments to the larger problem of class consciousness. (It’s easy to picture the petty tyrants of Orwell’s childhood growing into the Big Brother of later years). Orwell accomplishes all of this by focusing on the child’s visual perceptions but not his limited understanding:
…One afternoon, as we were filing out from tea, Mrs Wilkes the Headmaster's wife, was sitting at the head of one of the tables, chatting with a lady of whom I knew nothing, except that she was on an afternoon's visit to the school. She was an intimidating, masculine-looking person wearing a riding-habit, or something that I took to be a riding-habit. I was just leaving the room when Mrs Wilkes called me back, as though to introduce me to the visitor.
The focus on a strange and possibly frightening adult wearing a riding habit is the child’s. But the description (“intimidating, masculine looking”) – not to mention the emphasis on the child’s possibly mistaken perception (“or something I took to be a riding-habit”) is that of the mature author.

In fact, that close attention to the mistaken apprehensions of childhood is a second technique that both Cunningham and Orwell use to create the sophisticated narrator of the childhood memoir. In Cunningham’s case, she injects the adult’s greater sense of consciousness into her narrator in sections of the book that deal with matters far beyond the child’s limited ability to comprehend–an early encounter with a pedophile, for example or her mother’s impending death. Yet she also uses it to great humorous effect in Sleeping Arrangements:
I have heard the family legend that Barb is a worthless “gold digger” who “hooked” Norm when Norm was a lonesome sailor…stationed in her southern city, so far from his own real home. What a gold digger would have seen in this near-retarded mechanic was questionable, but I accept on faith a cousin’s pronouncement that Barb “grabbed the brass ring.” Barb wears large brass hoops through her ears, which lends the legend credence.
Cunningham has carefully selected details that wink to the reader even as the child misunderstands or doesn’t comprehend exactly what she’s saying—as in the repetition of words the eight-year-old knows are probably bad (“gold-digger,” “hooked”) but doesn’t understand. In fact, much of the book’s humor derives not only from the pluckiness of young Laura, but her limited capacity to understand what’s happening and being said.

In my workshops, I’ve taken to distributing these quotations by Lopate, Cunningham, and Orwell, along with a writing assignment I’ll conclude with below.

Writing Assignment

1. Spend a moment centering yourself…and think of moments from when you were a child between, say, the ages of 6 to 10, and were confronted with something clearly beyond your years. It could be your first glimpse of an alcoholic uncle, or the first time you heard your parent’s fighting about something you didn’t quite understand; or maybe the first time you witnessed something violent you couldn’t process. It doesn’t have to be a sad or disturbing memory – maybe something funny, like witnessing an older teen’s first awkward attempts at dressing or acting grown-up. Just make it something outside the scope of an 6 or 8 or 10-year-old’s apprehension.

2. Now, free write for 10 minutes about one of these moments – don’t worry at this moment about the double consciousness or anything; just write.

3. Review what you’ve written. Look for those sentences or paragraphs in your work when your narrator is perceiving something she or he clearly doesn’t understand. Whose perspective have you conveyed them from? If it’s the child’s perspective, think about what it is that the child-character doesn’t understand. Ask: what would I explain to that younger self? If it looks like you’ve attempted to write from a more adult perspective, see if you’ve maintained that distance consistently throughout. Or is the voice a bit wobbly? – i.e. Are there places where you seem to be writing from your current, adult perspective and others where it seems like something a young child would say?

4. Using one of the two voices above – the Cunningham or the Orwell –rewrite your piece.

For the Cunningham voice: remember to focus on what the child-character can actually see or perceive. But I want you to try your best to use your funny, witty adult self to actually describe the moment.

For the Orwell (use if your subject matter or your attitude toward it is more sober, serious, etc): Focus on the incident and describe the child’s feelings or understands, but be sure to use your current day language to do so. Feel free to pull back into a strong reflective voice that might begin: “When I consider this today…” If you can pull off dry British humor, all the better (“Night after night I prayed, with a fervor never previously attained in my prayers, 'Please God, do not let me wet my bed”).


Paul Zakrzewski is the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (Perennial) and his writing has appeared in in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Brevity, and more. A graduate of Cornell University, he received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from VCFA. If you’d like a copy of the “Crafting the Narrator of the Childhood Memoir” assignment, please email him. More info at

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