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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