Innocence & Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction
By Sue William Silverman
When I was studying fiction for my MFA degree, one of my teachers told me that “voice is everything.” As true as this is in fiction, it’s equally true in nonfiction. For even though I’m telling my own personal story, the voice I use isn’t my everyday speaking voice. In fact, my observation, both from writing and reading essays and memoirs, is that most writers employ two major voices in their work. I’ve defined these voices by re-imagining phrases originated by William Blake, labeling one a Song (or Voice) of Innocence, the other, a Song (or Voice) of Experience.
The Song (or Voice) of Innocence relates the facts of the experience, the surface subject. It’s the voice that, in effect, says, “first this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” It reveals the sequence of events, the particulars of your experience, whether in a one-page essay or a full-length book. It’s the innocent “you”—who you were when the events actually occurred.
In my memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, for example, this voice is characterized as the little girl “me” who is being sexually molested by my father. Because this voice is confused and scared, I/she only knows enough to relate the facts of what happened.
The Voice of Experience is then twined to this Voice of Innocence, thus adding a more mature author persona. This second narrator establishes the progression of thought in creative nonfiction, allowing the reader to know what the Voice of Innocence, what the facts, mean. By use of irony and metaphor, it interprets the surface subject. This voice, in effect, reflects back on the story, the past, and guides the reader through the maze of the experience. In “Terror, Father,” a simplified example of a Voice-of-Experience sentence could be: “Because my father misloved me, I had no sense of my true self growing up, no language to understand what happened to me.” This reflective narrator would then proceed to develop this idea of identity and language into a metaphor and theme for the entire memoir.
In my second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction, I implement an addict voice (the Song of Innocence) and a sober voice (the Song of Experience). Here is an example that utilizes both voices, where I, a college freshman, describe my feelings toward a scarf given to me by my older, married lover: “I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him—leaves smoldering in autumn dusk—and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don’t understand why the scent of the scarf … seems more knowable, more tangible than the rest of him.”
Here, I begin in the addict persona where the Voice of Innocence romanticizes the man and the maroon-scarf scent before moving into a more sober persona, the Voice of Experience, which reveals that the scarf is a metaphor for alienation, loneliness, loss. This sober, experienced voice, in other words, guides the reader through the quagmire of the addiction.
It is voice, then, in all its manifestations, that examines multiple and mysterious facets of a persona: the real “you” deepened into a character. In fact, I think of nonfiction characters as having different depths of view—as opposed to fiction that utilizes different points of view. For without these varied voices what you have, basically, is a one-note voice telling a one-note story.
But given these two broad categories, how do these voices ultimately form one cohesive chord? Imagine sliding along a scale of notes as you move from the Song of Innocence toward the Song of Experience. What are the gradations of pitch? To explore this process more closely, I delineate five “notes” that move “you,” as character, from Innocence to Experience, all of which can be used either in a short essay or a long book.
Note 1: An impersonal, factual persona is an element of the Song of Innocence and provides straightforward exposition to let the reader know where you are in time and place.
Note 2: An observant but still slightly distant persona that introduces a more writerly style, yet is still part of the Song of Innocence. Here, you provide the reader with an idea of how you observe your world of the senses.
Note 3: A more evolved persona, one with feelings, hovering between the Song of Innocence and the Song of Experience. You’re writing closer to the heart, with a sense of urgency and raw emotion.
Whether your piece is written in past or present tense, here you will explore how you felt when the events originally occurred. In other words, you’re feeling the facts of the story.
Note 4: By introducing a metaphoric persona, you bring the reader into the Song of Experience. This metaphoric voice begins to offer insight into the facts and feelings.
Note 5: This fully developed, reflective character (Song of Experience) culminates with all the notes. Metaphor is deepened in order to connect each element and event in the work into a cohesive whole. You reflect and ruminate upon the past, consider others in your life. What do you hope, wish, dream, fear? What are the lessons you’ve learned?
While I’ve shown a progression from a distant, rather simple voice into one that’s engaged and complex, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your essay or memoir must begin at Note 1. You can begin in the middle of things if you like (in medias res). And even though you, as a character, will evolve and emotionally grow over the course of the work (this growth is a kind of internal plot), you can still weave in and out among the five notes from the first page to the last. You can even use two or more of these voices in a single sentence or paragraph.
In sum, I imagine the Song-of-Experience voice as a guide, one who blazes the trail through a confusing maze of, say, misguided and unfortunate childhoods, physical or mental illnesses, addiction, loss, etc. If this guide is trustworthy, sympathetic, urgent, complex, and interesting, then the reader willingly follows the song, the voice, through the maze’s twists and turns. These various voices, then, interact throughout an essay or memoir to create “development.” What develops? The insights you want your experience to convey. Therefore, by the end, the reader will have gained understanding of the beautiful—if sometimes wrenching—pattern to it all.
Sue William Silverman's first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award Series in creative nonfiction and is in its 6th paperback printing. Her second memoir is Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton). She teaches in the MFA writing program at Vermont College and is associate editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises Press, Jan. 2006). Please visit www.suewilliamsilverman.com.
photo by Dinty W. Moore
Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige discusses the art of writing place and grief with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize:
PAIGE: First, I have to say that I admire this book so much—for its technical and emotional acumen. Kafka famously said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I favor such grievous reading. I want to be moved, I want blunt-force trauma to the head and heart. Riverine accomplishes both; it made me puzzle over and admire technical and formal maneuvers and also made me swoon at its beauty and keen pathos. Did you set out to reach the reader on both fronts concertedly? Were you conscious about achieving certain effects with readers, and if so, how did you conceive of those effects?
PALM: Alexis, thank you! That’s the highest compliment. It was part instinct on the front end and part crafty planning on the back end—lurching into the magic that’s generated while writing, then trying to make editorial sense of what I was drafting. Early in these chapters, I wanted to bring together my tendency to think peripatetically, my curiosity and loneliness which have followed me everywhere, my sense of longing and loss, and my love of language. Topically I wanted to investigate the way places shapes us, the marks we leave on each other through both love and violence. I wanted to show the way I think—amused at the way that physics and biology and nature play out in everyday life. I needed a way to tell what is, aside from the event of the crime and my relationship with the boy who committed it, an otherwise ordinary tale. And so the way that I wrote about the ordinary became very important. Nothing around us is ordinary, I found, looking closer. Everywhere, the land is not ours. Everywhere, the past has a dark underbelly. Everywhere, what appears to be one thing is something else. What I lack in narrative impulse—sometimes sidestepping intense, revealing scenes in favor of the quiet image or the extended metaphor, I try to make up in intellectual inquiry. Writing this way began to take on a swirling quality, and I wanted the reader to feel that with me. This vortex of thinking through experience. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just a love letter to the world that says, is anyone out there who experiences life the way I do?
PAIGE: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?
PALM: Avoidance was its origin, then a gradual acceptance of my own truth. I wrote around the heart of the narrative—around the crime, around the boy. The earliest essays are located in the middle of the book. I couldn’t untangle my life in this river home, so I broke it down into smaller “maps” I could tackle, as if cutting cross-sections from experience and flattening them in order to see them. I mapped the bar I grew up, I wrote an essay that toured the different churches and religions I tried, another that takes apart the cornfields I worked in and looks at them politically, socioeconomically, and so forth. When I read what became the epigraph—“Every map is a fiction” by D.J. Waldie—the rest clicked into place. The mapping became an organizing principle, as well as a method of thinking about experience. A gigantic metaphor for life. A map, after all, never stays the same and contains a hundred misrepresentations, summaries, erasures in every iteration. Maps are a kind of precise lie.
PAIGE: Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here is rich with place identity, from your hardscrabble Indiana hometown to the menacing pastoral of Vermont. (Thank you for resisting the romantic portrait here, by the way.) The book’s central river, the Kankakee, figures as a literal, metaphorical, and even stylistic force. How did place identity, and the rendering of micro- and macro- portraits of place, shape the book’s structure?
PALM:I began writing with flashes of scenes—writing those important moments that define a life. In those scenes I discovered the personal set of symbols that visually represent the same stories, the places I’ve inhabited. So in the book, place—the window, the mapped cell, the river, all appear as images, which become story, which become metaphor, and unfold again as images in a different location. The mapping recurs, the window watching recurs, the jails, fishing, abandoned structures recur. Vacancies recur in the forced vacation of the Potawatomi, in Corey’s absence, in the loss of life inflicted by his crimes, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in the one square inch of silence, in my thinking of the children never born to the sterilized Abenaki of Vermont. The river works the same way, even stylistically as you say—story meandering, then forced by my own hand to run elsewhere, then spilling over itself to where it naturally wants to be, flooding a map, rendering it false. All the while leaving stories in its wake. All of this is to say out loud what I most feel about place: something happened here. It changed people. It changed you. Don’t forget. Notice the linkage across time. Notice everything still alive in a single moment, a single vista.
PAIGE: In addition to the book’s focus on maps and mapping, the narrator/ writer seems driven to map not only places but also individual subjects and how they fit together. You deliciously and obsessively catalogue and map subjects ranging from sex offender registries to entropy to cultural violence to desire to eminent domain. So many ranging curiosities and events come together, as if the narrator understands the larger world through the act of putting it together fragment by fragment. The book’s identity too seems to emerge out of the narrator’s impulse to suture fragments and to impose order upon them, beautifully, I would add. Can you describe your process of managing such a range of subjects with depth, and with such a varied approach formally–from cinematic scenes to philosophical musings to research-driven expositions to lush, lyrical passages? There’s so much to talk about regarding the relationship of form and content in this book. How did you navigate all of it?
PALM:I realized about halfway through compiling the narrative stories that I didn’t want to write a straightforward narrative. It pained me and bored me to be in just my own past for as long as it would take to finish a book. I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and John D’Agata’s edited anthology The Next American Essay and Wendy Walters’s Multiply/Divide and Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. These books excited me formally and gave me permission, somehow, to pursue this more Frankenstein-like narrative that stitched together and wove together the narrative with my ideas about the world and with the external world itself—other books, films, history, physics, notes from a congressional committee’s findings, and so forth. There was little order, almost not at all until the last edit when I arranged the pieces into a chronology and stitched through them a connected narrative. Writing this way was like Pac-Man. Consuming all of those things outside of my own story and digesting them. The book is a little wild, it’s not as restrained or held together as you might expect of a memoir. I took some satisfaction in preserving this wildness and letting the accumulation do work I couldn’t plan for—I wholeheartedly believe in Judith Kitchen’s admonishment to writers to follow digressions to see where they lead—both in writing and in life. To do it again, I might exercise a bit more control. But I don’t know—it’s a record of my intellectual excitement, a record of what I felt after reading those works that moved me to try what felt natural to me—this piling on of seemingly unrelated things until every last one became inextricable from the rest. It was a risk and there was definitely some push to be slightly more focused, or clearer about how certain things connected, but I think we found a compromise that everyone was happy with. Sometimes you read a memoir full of characters and situations that entertain but still come away not knowing its author. I didn’t want that. I think the form and content of this book reflect exactly who I am, in all of its human messiness.
PAIGE: You won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for this book. What was it like when you heard the news, and what has the larger experience been like? Any advice for aspiring contest entrants?
PALM:I already was in talks with Graywolf about a book deal when I received the call from Fiona that Brigid Hughes had selected Riverine as the prize winner. Because I wasn’t expecting a phone call from the press, I immediately thought they were calling to drop me. Silly—and certainly evidence of my feeling like an imposter. But it was good news! I was shocked, I cried. It was way better than what I imagined winning the Publishers Clearing House scam that I bought into as a kid would feel like. I remember telling Fiona that this would change my life. The book has a narrative hook to be sure—my relationship with a man convicted of murder and my thoughts about class in white, rural Indiana and its attendant issues. But the formally peculiar approach to telling that story was another part of why it was chosen. That meant everything to me because when I was experimenting with that Frankenstein-like approach I was discouraged from it by my writing peers—those same peers who admired the unexpected styles and forms we see in Maggie Nelson or Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. But I pressed on privately, certain I was on to something, even if I wasn’t executing it very well yet. To other writers I would say don’t let everyone else tell you how to write. Trust your ideas, follow your own digressions, read work that informs your work in some way, and assume you will get to where you want to go. Assume you are able to endure rejection and various other roadblocks. You are. I never assumed failure. I assumed if I kept working hard, looked at each step as an opportunity to learn, kept reading and writing with my whole heart and head, I would succeed. The prize has opened doors for other opportunities but as yet, I haven’t had the time or mind to sit and write something worthwhile. So what I take away from the prize, in addition to the great honor of being published with an extraordinary press, is an endorsement from people I admire and respect that enables me to keep trying my ideas—some people will like them. Try your story in an unexpected form, try it in a dozen different structures and see what happens. Maybe nothing, but maybe something.
Read Part Two of the Interview Here.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch,Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com
Tagged:digressions, experimental narrative, Graywolf Nonfiction Prize